The 2024 Cannes Film Festival Sets the Stage for Cinema’s Elder Statesmen to Take One More Bow


Canadian director David Cronenberg, 81 and seen here in 2023, is braving the competition at Cannes for the seventh time with his new film, 'The Shrouds.' Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images; Cannes stairs (OGGM/Getty Images)

When the lights go down at the 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière in Cannes, there are no sponsor ads and no blaring trailers. Just pitch-black darkness, then an animated sequence of a red staircase rising from a turquoise sea into a starry night, set to the hypnotic swirls of Camille SaintSaëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Since my first visit to Cannes in 1990, that ritual has not changed. And after hearing that tune countless times, its spell still lingers.

The siren song of Cannes. Every year at this time, it hits me like an entitled strain of spring fever, an almost bodily urge to make the pilgrimage to cinema’s high altar on the Côte d’Azur so I can bask in the perverse pleasure of watching movies at 8:30 a.m. press screenings with a mob of  several thousand journalists. (Like most addictions, it makes no sense.) 

After covering the Cannes Film Festival every year for over two decades, I have not been back since the pandemic. This spring I was sorely tempted, but the logistics didn’t add up. And now, with Cannes launching its 77th annual edition on May 14, as I browse the line-up of filmmakers, I feel the pull more than ever. These are my people – men of a certain age who just can’t resist climbing that red-carpeted stairway to heaven one last time.

A red carpet unlike any other, the Cannes stairway is one of the iconic features that sets the festival apart. Photo: Courtesy of Festival de Cannes


Like most film festivals, le Festival de Cannes (the official name doesn’t deign to mention the word “film”) is not what it once was. But it still holds its own as the Olympics of world cinema and the deal-making capital of the festival circuit. As a Hollywood fever dream on the Riviera, Cannes has a royal allure that never gets old. 

But its filmmakers do get old. This year, of the 22 movies competing for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, 15 are directed by men over the age of 50, including four over 70.

At 85, Francis Ford Coppola is the elder statesman. A quarter century after winning the Palme for Apocalypse Now, he is back to unveil Megalopolis, a self-financed sci-fi epic made with US$120 million of his own money that is still looking for a distributor. Starring Adam Driver as a utopian architect with the power to control time, this wild passion project was conceived circa Apocalypse Now and sounds every bit as risky. Unlike Martin Scorsese, 81, who premiered Killers of the Flower Moon safely out of competition last year, Coppola is rolling the dice in a high-stakes casino that can make or break a movie like nowhere else. Audiences in Cannes can be brutally fickle.

But what does he have to lose? Coppola’s place in the canon is already assured. The same can be said of David Cronenberg, on a smaller scale. The 81-year-old Canadian director is braving the competition for the seventh time with The Shrouds – a sci-fi drama about digital burial cloths that reveal the decomposition of a body in real time – which may be his most personal film, conceived as he mourned his wife’s death seven years ago. Cronenberg has never won the Palme, but in 1996 he ignited raging controversy with Crash, a fetishistic portrayal of characters who get their sexual kicks from car wrecks. 

A jury led by Coppola, who apparently loathed the film, gave it a special award for “audacity.” Three years later, Cronenberg headed the jury and left a permanent dent on Cannes by handing five of its seven prizes to just two films. From then on, the festival ruled that no film could win more than one award. If his seventh time is a charm, winning the Palme for Shrouds would provide cinema’s master of body horror with a fitting (if premature) epitaph.

Vincent Cassel and Diane Kruger in Shrouds. Photo: © Pyramide Distribution / Gravetech Productions Inc / SBS Productions


Offering another meditation on mortality, writer-director Paul Schrader, 77,  gives the competition an obliquely Canadian twist with an American movie called Oh Canada, based on the Russell Banks novel Forgone. Five decades after Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, which won Scorsese his only Palme d’Or, he returns to Cannes with Richard Gere, who stars in Oh Canada as a tormented writer who fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War and is now close to death.  As collaborations go, this is quite the long-arc reunion. It reunites Gere, 74, with Schrader, 77, who directed his breakthrough performance in American Gigolo (1980) the film that turned him into a major sex symbol.  Co-starring Uma Thurman, 54, and contemporary sex symbol Jacob Elordi (Euphoria) as the younger version of Gere’s character, this portrait of the artist as an old man may still have some sizzle.

Richard Gere and Uma Thurma star in Oh Canada. Photo: Photo: Courtesy of Festival de Cannes


Among the titles programmed out of competition in the festival’s main selection are two blockbuster sagas. George Miller, 79, launches Furioso: A Mad Max Saga, the latest installment of his post-apocalyptic franchise.  And Kevin Costner, 69, will unveil the first chunk of an epic four-part western, Horizon: An American Saga. Producers of Hollywood blockbusters, however, tend not to compete for the Palme d’Or. Leery of bad reviews, they’d rather mine their gold at the box office.

Meanwhile, at the art-house end of the spectrum, some directors may be excluded from competition because their work is too off-the-wall to make them contenders – like Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin, who finally makes his Cannes debut at age 68 with Rumours, a dark comedy that he directed with brothers Evan and Galen Johnson. While brother directing duos are not rare, directing trios are almost unheard-of. But nothing Maddin does is conventional. For decades, his mysterioso brew of retro avant-garde filmmaking has hovered in a twilight of international acclaim and commercial obscurity. What’s astonishing about Rumours is that he has landed two Oscar-winning actresses, Cate Blanchett, 54, and Alicia Vikander, as its stars.

Celebrating that kind of miracle, an underdog triumph of art over celebrity, is what gives Cannes torque. The festival routinely upends the laws of showbiz gravity, larding the red carpet with Hollywood glamour while anointing auteurs as its most elevated stars. While Meryl Streep, 74, is the Guest of Honour at this year’s opening ceremony, the female gaze will be felt in actors’ close-ups and photo ops, not behind the camera.

Meryl Streep last attended Cannes in 1989, when she won Best Actress honours for Evil Angels. At 74, she is the Guest of Honour at this year’s opening ceremony. Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)


Only four of the 22 films in the main competition are directed by women, most much younger than the men.  However, Barbie director Greta Gerwig is the president of the jury, which puts her in a curious position if she’s looking for the next Greta Gerwig among a canon of aging Kens.

With its black-tie traditions and classical rites, Cannes remains a Hollywood dreamland that does not exist in Hollywood. Sustained with lavish government funding, it feeds on a culture and a fan base in a country where cinema is a virtual religion. With a pantheon dominated by aging patriarchs – this year George Lucas, 79, will receive an honorary Palme d’Or – it’s a funhouse mirror of the whole industry, which is still dominated by male filmmakers determined to die with their boots on. 

Of the 22 movies in this main competition, 15 are directed by men over the age of 50, including four over 70. Left to right: David Cronenberg, 81; George Miller, 79; George Lucas, 70; Francis Ford Coppola, 85; Paul Schrader, 77; and Guy Maddin, 68. Photos: Getty Images


Among former Cannes habitués, Scorsese is making yet another movie with Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder). And Woody Allen, 88, is still casting young women in romantic dramadies. He just released his 50th movie, Coup de Chance, and he’s planning another. But Clint Eastwood, who turns 93 this month, does know when to quit – he swears that his upcoming film, Juror No. 3, starring Kiefer Sutherland, will be his last. We’ll see.

Despite its reverence for the patriarchs, what keeps Cannes vital is how it tracks the cutting edge of cinema and can thrust lesser-known directors into the spotlight overnight with a Palme d’Or win. They’ve ranged from Steven Soderbergh blowing up with his first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape (2000), to the Oscar-winning coup of the 2023 winner, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall – and Jonathan Glazer’s Grand Prix runner-up, The Zone of Interest, which for my money was the movie of the year. 

I saw it at TIFF, but seeing it come out of the blue in Cannes would have been a different experience. That thrill of discovery and surprise is what keeps pulling me back, or makes me wish I were there, succumbing to the spell of cinema’s magic kingdom.


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