Page last updated at 07:10 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 08:10 UK

Cannes keeps faith with auteurism

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

This year's Cannes Film Festival is dominated by new titles from internationally acclaimed directors who are no strangers to this prestigious event.

Ken Loach, 2006
Loach won the Palme d'Or in 2006

In fact, it has been a while since the festival has showcased so much fresh work from so many celebrated auteurs.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "auteur" - French for author - refers to a filmmaker whose work reflects his or her creative vision and personal sensibilities.

The word gained credence in the 1950s when it was used by the then-critic Francois Truffaut to describe directors with a recognisable visual style.

The term soon entered the critical lexicon, with the filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague (New Wave) proudly wearing it as a badge of honour.

However, the notion that a director has an authorial role rankles with those who feel filmmaking is and should be a collaborative medium.

Veteran US screenwriter William Goldman has been one of the auteur theory's harshest critics.

In France, though, the term is freely used to describe the kind of idiosyncratic talents competing this year for the iconic Palme d'Or.

Their number includes four previous recipients of the festival's highest honour - Jane Campion, Britain's Ken Loach, Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier.


The result, according to industry newspaper Variety, will be the "biggest heavyweight auteur smackdown in recent years."

This in itself, though, is no guarantee that the competition entries will be abundant with quality.

Lars von Trier, 2000
Denmark's Lars von Trier is another previous winner returning this year

The 2005 festival, for example, saw a similar plethora of auteur offerings from such acclaimed directors as David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch and Michael Haneke.

Yet several of these - notably films from Germany's Wim Wenders, the Canadian Atom Egoyan and Denmark's Von Trier - were considered serious disappointments.

Louise Tutt of Screen International, however, believes that with so many big names involved 2009 could be a vintage year.

"These are the heavy-hitters of world cinema and they're all going to be in Cannes," she tells the BBC News website.

"Obviously some films will disappoint, but advance word on a lot of them is actually quite good."

Given the global standing of the likes of Tarantino, Ang Lee and Spain's Pedro Almodovar, meanwhile, Tutt feels the notion of auteur is "an absolutely relevant concept".

"These are the visionaries," she says. "From an industry point of view, they are bankable names who will sell internationally."


British filmmaker Terence Davies was invited to Cannes last year to screen his documentary Of Time and the City out of competition.

Ask if the 63-year-old regards himself as an auteur, though, and the suggestion is immediately rebuffed.

Terence Davies
Davies' film Of Time and the City was screened at Cannes last year

"Oh no, I don't see myself in those terms at all," he says from his home in Essex.

"I see that word connected with the greats, like [Max] Ophuls or [Alfred] Hitchcock.

"I feel that with the death of [Ingmar] Bergman, we've seen the last of the truly great auteurs who changed the nature of screen narrative."

Indeed, the softly-spoken director believes there may even be a danger using the word auteur too freely.

"I think it can be a burden," he continues. "If you do use it, you have to apply it with a certain degree of perspicacity."

Being an auteur, says Davies, means having "a central vision". "You have to retain that vision and not let it be cheapened in anyway."

However, he is quick to dismiss the suggestion that auteurism and collaboration are mutually exclusive.

"The great auteurs perform an incredible balancing act," he explains. "They maintain their vision while still being open to suggestions from other people.

"When people do that, it really is an extraordinary achievement."

The 2009 Cannes Film Festival runs from 13 to 24 May.

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