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With Spielberg, Penn, Foster and Jarmusch (twice), Americans will help storm the beaches at Cannes

‘The BFG’

A scene from Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” which is headed to Cannes

 

(DreamWorks)

Last year’s Cannes Film Festival was notable for its English-language movies made by directors from non-English-speaking places, as selections such as “The Lobster,” “Sicario,” “Louder than Bombs,” “Tale of Tales” and “Youth” filled the selection.

This year’s festival maintains half that bargain. There are, once again, many English-language movies. Only this time they are largely made by Americans.

With Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen, Shane Black, Jodie Foster, Jim Jarmusch again, Jeff Nichols and Sean Penn all bringing new directorial work to the festival, the 2016 edition of Cannes will be as American as it’s been in years. Add in Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish American making a Los Angeles-set English language movie, and there are a lot of red-and-white stripes to go along with le bleu.

In fact, when Cannes general delegate Thierry Fremaux announced the much-anticipated lineup for the May confab at a Paris news conference Thursday morning, only one American hopeful was left out -- Oliver Stone, whose fact-based “Snowden” is likely to hit the late summer festivals ahead of its mid-September release.

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Cannes is the most prestigious film festival in the world, and its lineup offers a kind of live referendum on the state of individual and national cinemas -- not to mention a fanboy level of anticipation usually reserved for precincts far removed from the global film scene.

This year, the Yanks, bringing a mix of in- and out-of-competition titles, join competition movies from international returnees including South Korean auteur Park-Chan Wook  (“Agassi”), Brit Ken Loach (”I, Daniel Blake”), the Belgian-born Dardenne brothers (“The Unknown Girl”), French-Canadian Xavier Dolan (“The End of the World”) and a pair of Romanians (Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu, with, “Bacalaureat” and “Sierra-Nevada,” respectively), always a force to be reckoned with.

All will spur the usual frenzy of scrambling for the top prize of Palme d’Or -- which has gone to French-language movies in three of the last four years. (Good news for the Dardennes and Dolan, along with Hollywood pulp-master Paul Verhoeven, whose revenge thriller “Elle” marks his first feature in 10 years and his first ever in French.)

But it is the Americans who could well end up generating a good amount of talk on the Croisette.

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One big reason will be Spielberg’s “The BFG,” an adaptation of the Roald Dahl fantasy in which newly minted Oscar winner Mark Rylance stars as the titular, acrimonious giant. The film will get a special screening out of competition.

Spielberg is no stranger to Cannes, having headed up the jury several years ago and bringing “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in 2008. But where most big Hollywood releases tend to be movies coming out just days or a few weeks later -- see under: “Mad Max: Fury Road” last year -- “The BFG” is not arriving in theaters until early July.

Foster, meanwhile, will appear at Cannes with the George Clooney- and Julia Roberts-starring “Money Monster,” a movie that continues where award-season hit “The Big Short” left off, focusing on an outspoken financial-news commentator (Clooney) confronted by a violent man who lost a boatload of money on his recommendation. It is Foster’s first directorial effort in five years, and her first time at Cannes as a director in same; she previously brought “The Beaver” to the Croisette in 2011. It is also, notably, Roberts’ first-ever Cannes appearance.

Like Foster, Penn is another figure who has been focusing on other pursuits lately. Fresh off some notoriety for his meeting with El Chapo this winter, is taking “The Last Face,” a love story starring Charlize Theron and set in the world of African nonprofit work. The competition entry might put the Penn focus back on film after the Rolling Stone-centric controversy; indeed, Penn has not directed a movie in nearly a decade (“Into the Wild”), and hasn’t been to Cannes as a director in 15 years (“The Pledge”).

The same minimalist label can’t be put on Nichols, who is in Cannes competition for the second time in five fests (“Mud”) and is coming right off his well-reviewed Berlin, SXSW and recently released sci-fi effort “Midnight Special.” His new movie, “Loving,” offers yet another turn in the 37-year-old’s increasingly eclectic career -- it focuses on a real-life court case involving interracial marriage in the South in the mid-20th century.

Equally prolific is Allen, who returns to Cannes with “Cafe Society,” his previously announced opening-night film set in 1930s Hollywood. Allen’s most recent opener, “Midnight in Paris” in 2011, turned out to be one of the biggest hits of his career, and he’ll be looking to reclaim that magic after modest returns and ambivalent reviews for his 2015 Cannes film and commercial release “Irrational Man.”

Refn, for his part, will also look to rebound from a recent tough ride -- for “Only God Forgives,” in 2013 -- and return to his own 2011 luster, for “Drive.” Refn will bring to this year’s competition “The Neon Demon,” a supernatural story set in L.A. starring Elle Fanning.

Refn’s go-to star for some of his earlier films, meanwhile, will be back on the Croisette himself: Ryan Gosling will return to the fest after his own shelling several years ago, for directorial effort “Lost River,” as he and Russell Crowe arrive with Shane Black’s 1970s buddy cop comedy “The Nice Guys,” also out of competition.

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But perhaps the biggest American star will be Kristen Stewart, fast becoming a Cannes It actor. Stewart, who has been to the Croisette with films such as “On the Road and “Clouds of Sils Maria” in recent years, will have two films: the previously announced Allen opener and “Personal Shopper,” a supernatural tale against the backdrop of the French fashion business that reunites her with “Clouds” director Olivier Assayas.

Also on the doubling-up front is Jarmusch, offering the rare twofer for a director: He’ll have the Iggy Pop/Stooges documentary “Gimme Danger” out of competition as well as “Paterson” in competition. What’s “Paterson” about? Adam Driver stars as ... a driver (it had to happen sometime), piloting a bus in the most ordinary life while his wife, played by Golshifteh Farahani, has a more dramatic existence. The movie is named for Paterson, N.J., which will certainly be making its Cannes debut.

Every year, the Cannes slate offers a kind of temperature-taking for American film. And while this year’s slate doesn’t offer a resounding endorsement for the country’s youth -- the only director under the age of 50 with a competition or special screening entry is Nichols -- it shows that U.S. filmmakers continue to possess both the desire and means to make works of auteurish cinema despite mainstream Hollywood’s eschewal of the form. And though Cannes is not above selecting a Hollywood movie or two for its star power, particularly out of competition, the presence of such a wide variety of styles and sensibilities can only hearten those gloomy about the Marvelization of the U.S. scene.

Incidentally, on a different superhero note: Nearly every year a Sundance movie from a young American director goes into Un Certain Regard. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” gets the unofficial slot this year, as Fox Searchlight opts to hold Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” for later festivals ahead of its October release. Also appearing in Un Certain Regard from the U.S. is the little-known “The Transfiguration,” from first-timer Michael O’ Shea.

Even with the U.S. representation, the trend of Europeans making English-language movies with American celebs hasn’t gone away. A kind of artistic marriage of convenience -- born of Euro directors seeking easier methods of financing and Yankee actors looking for a non-superhero movie to star in -- the trend can be seen in smaller ways this year, particularly via the Assayas-Stewart partnership.

In a similar vein, longtime Cannes favorite Pedro Almodovar will be back too, staying in his native Spanish but adapting the work of one of the greatest modern English-language writers with “Julieta,” based on several Alice Munro short stories. South Korea’s Park also adapted an English-language work for his latest genre piece: the Brit Sarah Waters’ Victorian-era crime novel “Fingersmith.”

And crisscrossing the Atlantic is longtime Brit favorite Andrea Arnold making the most American of movies -- a road-trip tale in the Midwest. The film, titled “American Honey,” will play in competition.

Cannes serves twin, almost dueling purposes, depending on why a film comes: It provides a seal of legitimacy to films otherwise seen as commercial, and it offers a release springboard for movies previously consigned to the art house.

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Last year, for instance, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Inside Out” began what proved to be stellar award-season runs on the Croisette. (The legitimizing paid dividends in other ways: “Fury Road” director George Miller  presides over this year’s competition jury.)

On the other end of the spectrum, upscale efforts such as “Amy” and “Sicario” were able to establish a commercial foothold with their Cannes debut and went on to become box-office breakouts.
 
Sometimes, though, those efforts go for naught: Neither “Youth,” “Carol” nor “Irrational Man” last year picked up the economic traction they might have hoped for ahead of their U.S. releases. And sometimes, in rare cases, a movie lands there and is never heard from again (see under: Gus van Sant’s “Sea of Trees”).
 
Still, if a movie is at Cannes, it’s a pretty good bet it can on to prosper elsewhere. The Oscar foreign-language winner has come out of the competition three out of the last four years (including this year’s winner, “Son of Saul”). And even the more rarefied competition titles can yield commercial hits, as it has with films such as “The Artist” and “Drive” in past years.

The festival this year will contend with an added bit of anxiety outside the screening rooms of the Palais, as organizers on Thursday spoke of beefed-up security in light of the attacks in Paris and Brussels in the last year. Cannes is both tightly monitored and an exercise in public chaos, with tens of thousands of visitors and tourists descending on the small seaside town, packing the streets.

Festival president Pierre Lescure noted that “we have 500 people who are well-seasoned,” citing one tally of security forces, and added that “many meetings have already taken place with regional and national security authorities.”

A different kind of tension will play out inside the screening rooms. Last year, Fremaux took heat for a large proportion of French titles in competition, with more than a quarter of the competition slate (five of 19) coming from France. This year that quotient is lower, with four of 20 movies coming from France, though three additional competition titles-from the Dardennes, Dolan and Verhoeven--are in French.

At the news conference (during which organizers also said they were doing away with the afterthought-ish closing-night film this year), reporters pressed Fremaux on other perceived representation gaps.

There are no movies from the Arab world in competition, one noted, though emergent director Mohamed Diab, who made the sociologically minded bus-set tale “Cairo 678,” will be in Un Certain Regard with “Clash,” which takes place in the world of radical Islam.

There are also no Japanese directors in competition, after the well-regarded Hirokazu Koreeda, whose last few films were in competition, saw his new movie “After the Storm” relegated to Un Certain Regard. Reporters at the news conference also asked about a lack of competition representation from Mexico, India and other places.

Queried about the dearth of Arab films, Fremaux pointed to the Diab selection in Un Certain Regard, then added that the festival didn’t choose movies by region. He reminded that Cannes serves as a meaningful referendum on various national cinemas precisely because there is no quota system.

“We should not list 120 countries of UNESCO to say how many are missing,” he said. “Yes, many are missing.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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