The Cannes Film Festival and the Excesses of Auteurism

Curator's Note

Most film festivals market their titles by emphasizing their associations with attractive national traditions. But Cannes promotes auteurs. Directors’ names are front and center in all Cannes publicity materials. And directors are invariably the stars of the Festival’s famous press conferences.

The accompanying video clip is taken from the 2010 Cannes Festival press conference for the film Biutiful, directed by Alejandro Gonzales Iñàrritu. The clip depicts the first question asked along with Iñàrritu’s response. To appreciate fully the implications of this exchange, one must understand the context in which it occurred.

Before he made Biutiful, Iñàrritu had directed only three films: Amores Perros (1999), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006). All three were scripted by Guillermo Arriago, an established Mexican writer who specializes in temporally scrambled, multi-character narratives. The networked storylines of all these Iñàrritu/Arriaga collaborations met with lavish critical praise. Despite their success, however, director and screenwriter fell out during the production of Babel. Arriaga gave an interview in which, to Iñàrritu’s mind, the writer took more credit for 21 Grams than he deserved. As a result, Iñàrritu requested that his scriptwriter be banned from Babel’s Cannes premiere. The Cannes staff honored the auteur’s request and, even though Arriaga had won the Festival’s screenwriting award in 2005 for his work on The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he was shut out of the Festival’s red carpet celebrations for Babel.

Where the critically acclaimed Iñàrritu/Arriaga collaborations had featured narratives that were complex and challenging, the storyline of Biutiful is simple and straightforward. Most critics found the plot thin and overly schematic, and called the film a disappointment. One conclusion to be drawn is that Iñàrritu—whether he wants to admit it or not-- is a filmmaker who needs the give-and-take inherent in a true collaborative process to reach his full potential. The auteur-worship one finds at Cannes fosters the kind of self-destructive hubris on display in this clip. In its unreflective elevation of director-auteurs to the exclusion of other creative talents, the Festival not only shortchanges the many people whose work is essential to the success of most films but also, inasmuch as it encourages directors like Iñàrritu to discount the importance of such people, does a disservice to the auteurs themselves.


A provocative piece, Virginia; thanks for posting it.

Cannes is an interesting anomaly in many ways. I haven't been there to witness it in any capacity, but as I understand its identity (both in terms of how the festival imagines itself and how it projects itself, which are not always coterminous), Cannes strives to maintain a bulwark against the erosive forces of mass culture. One way that they imagine this imperative to be fulfilled is through, as you say, a nearly anachronistic auteurist bent, which celebrates "artistic" achievement over against the presumably consumerist inflection of the more common adoration of actors.

Ironically, this strategy, as you point out, serves promote an ideology of artistry over collaboration in every bit the same way as does "star" culture. In this case, however, the ideology carries the imprimitur of high culture, making it that much more convincing (to those, at least, who give a fig about what goes on in Cannes).

My understanding of Cannes is that this same high/low culture dichotomy is rehearsed in terms of the access given to the "common" person with regard to festival events and screenings. Cannes is thus perhaps not only an exercise in auteur-worship, but rather more holistically an exercise in rituals of royalty and peasantry, with the upshot being that the vast majority of other film festivals around the world have found great cultural purchase in defining themselves against it (in terms of access, pretension, etc.).

I read this post initially from the second floor of Toronto's new Bell Lightbox (more on that come Friday...), glancing down upon the inaugural exhibition, "Essential Cinema." The exhibit is organized the 100 most essential films, as designated by TIFF. (While picking apart film canons is a question perhaps best left to another day, bumping Citizen Kane from its customary top stop in favor of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc is sure to raise some eyebrows, especially considering that the film doesn't even rate a mention on either of the Sight & Sound's top 10 lists. But I digress...) 

I bring this up in the context of Robert's response to Virginia's piece (which I agree sets the tone for what promises to be a most interesting week of posts here at IMR). The presentation of the Essential 100 is unabashedly auteurist in its organization; one of its defining visual elements is a giant wall that lists each of the films included in the exhibit, alongside its director. This is not only to say that the deification of the director isn't unique to Cannes - of course it isn't, and I'm sure that TIFF isn't exactly an example of what Robert had in mind when he referred to festivals that profit by defining themselves against the Cannes model.

For the largest festivals, however, I think that la politique des auteurs represents more than just a stubborn adherence to an outmoded theory - it's a business model borne of necessity. Sure, if we're being precise we should substitute "author function" for auteur, but ultimately the films that Cannes, Toronto, etc. are trafficking in are auteur cinema, and if Iñàrritu didn't exist, they would need to invent him.

I wholeheartedly agree that the difference between the adulation accorded movie stars and hotshot directors is quantitative, not qualitative - it's as reductive to talk about Black Swan as a Darren Aronofsky film as it is to think of it as a Natalie Portman vehicle. But where I might take a slightly different tack is when it comes to the question of the implication for this distinction on the high/low divide that Robert brings up. I would think that we could agree to maintain a category for "serious" cinema, the kind of platform-release, limited-run films that make their debut at places like Cannes and Toronto. But how to preserve some pretense of commercial viability for cinema that is not star-driven? Just as we understand "Wong Kar-Wai" to be shorthand for a constellation of cast and crew that commonly work together to produce films of a certain temperament and aesthetic, aren't we doing the same thing by lionizing Iñàrritu at the expense of his partner? Virginia's point is well-made - there are potentially harmful consequences to such ego inflation - but might we alternately read this video as a failure of Alejandro Gonzales Iñàrritu, spokesperson of Brand Iñàrritu, to stay on message?  


I take Brendan's point about the advantages of promoting auteurs, a strategy which many film festivals use to promote what David Bordwell has called "Art Cinema" and what radical filmmakers have dubbed "Second Cinema." Cannes represents an extreme version of this project, which continues to drive much of today's movie reviewing. But I would want to stress the extent to which such auteur worship operates to marginalize the creative contributions of others--many of which are key to the success of a given film.  

And Robert is right to stress the elitist overtones inherent in the Cannes festival, which is set up to maximize industry networking and journalistic coverage, not to cater to ordinary movie buffs. The red carpet photo ops and popular opening and closing night selections are calculated to maximize the trickle-down effect of the festival so that the hoi polloi can participate in the event vicariously. Thus, ironically, Cannes is the best-known festival among the general public while at the same time being the least accessible to non-professional film lovers.


Interesting posts these. The political  economy argument seems to me to as significant as the historic. I feel the subject can be broadened to include other festivals (the influence of Cannes), indie auteurs and the short film. As a director who trained at the National Film & TV School in the UK I'd have to add that film schools promote/admire this model also. I was asked to write an essay on "my favourite director" on entrance and it was a toss up between Trauffaut (auteur with eclectic taste) and Houston (could be very writer friendly). I chose Houston who made howlers as well as classics. Combined auteur traits and journeyman attitudes. As most film directors are apt to. Interestingly my own tutor was the thematically unclassifiable Stephen Frears.

What interests me is the 'discovery' of indie auteurs through the festival circuit. The promotional aspect - that they have been uncovered by sassy (experienced) Producers. This is bizarrely reminiscent of the Hollywood 'starlet' era. There's a sort of prestige and pride attached to 'finding' new auteur talent that understandbly boosts the saleability of the product through the rather snobbish indie/art house cinema circuit.  The genre they continue to operate in (No.1 in the auteur model rule book) is in the 'realist tradition. This is the British obsession with class writ large. The basis of our movie history. By realism of course the Brits mean naturalism with poetry. The edgy aesthetic, the easy camera, the unforced performances - the auteur's ticket and the critics wet dream. Andrea Arnold & Lynne Ramsay claimed their auteur credentials by presenting a view of the lower class via an aesthetic that both patronises and frames them. Shane Meadows (journeyman exemplar) is much closer I feel to the actuality. He offers a spririt of working class life that chimes with his own. It should be noted that camerawork and not the shaping of the narrative (script) is a significant apparent 'signature' of the indie auteur. Meadows takes a classic approach in this regard.

I was asked when I left Film School who I thought our best film director was by a film critic/ journalist now the film buyer at the National Film theatre (BFI Southbank). "Terence Davies" I said without a second thought. I still feel he is our finest - a real auteur. A storyteller; the telling impresses as does the story. The way he tells, tells me something about him too.

A contemporary UK auteur who keeps the journeyman spirit alive for me is Ben Hopkins. He writes. He produces fantastic and unusual alternative worlds. His visual flare is indicative too of his personality. The spirit of the imagination it seems to me is the main component these new indie auteurs appear to be bereft of. In the case of Iñàrritu who’s interview I will not be viewing – his credibility and common decency also seem to be virtues that are severely lacking.


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