At Cannes, Un Certain Regard Offers a Different Perspective

At Cannes, Un Certain Regard Offers a Different Perspective

The British filmmaker Molly Manning Walker was on vacation in Rome on May 26, 2023, when her phone rang. A week earlier, her feature debut “How to Have Sex” had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, festival organizers were calling because her movie, about a group of 16-year-old girls who spend a debauched booze and sex-soaked summer vacation on the Greek island of Crete, had won a prize that would be announced at that evening’s closing ceremony back on the Côte d’Azur.

“I had to drive to the nearest airport really quickly and get on the next plane and I ran in three minutes after the film had been announced,” Manning Walker, 30, recalled in a recent phone interview.

She wasn’t exaggerating. She did, in fact, bolt into the cinema wearing a lime green T-shirt and black tennis shorts. “What the hell is going on?” she asked the audience in disbelief. The answer was that “How to Have Sex” had won the top award in Un Certain Regard, the sidebar section at the festival that is known for recognizing films by new and emerging directors.

While the starry main competition at Cannes — which begins on Tuesday, and this year features new work by David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Yorgos Lanthimos and other established filmmakers — attracts most of the media’s attention, Un Certain Regard, which translates to “a certain look,” is where one can most reliably glimpse where world cinema is headed. In the words of Thierry Frémaux, Cannes’s artistic director, “U.C.R. discovers and celebrates the new generation and expands the frontiers of cinema.”

In an email interview, Frémaux, who heads the viewing committee that selects the films that screen at the festival, said that Un Certain Regard’s purpose was “to bring out new trends, new paths, new countries of cinema. It’s a selection that favors young filmmakers, especially female directors, and prepares the emergence of future generations.

“We’re looking for style, originality, narrative force and conviction,” he wrote.

Peter Bradshaw, the chief film critic for The Guardian, said Un Certain Regard was a game changer when it was founded in 1978 by Gilles Jacob, Frémaux’s predecessor.

“It doubled the size of the official festival, basically,” Bradshaw explained in a phone interview. “Twenty extra titles in what is a very important sidebar — it’s taken very seriously — and with that sidebar it created a huge challenge to the other festivals because, you know, other festivals which might have wanted those titles find they’re being hoovered up by Un Certain Regard,” he said, since the films that screen at Cannes are typically world premieres.

In addition to attending Cannes as a critic since 1999, the year he started at The Guardian, Bradshaw was also a member of the Un Certain Regard jury in 2011 that was headed by the Serbian director Emir Kusturica, a two-time winner of the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.

The Un Certain Regard awards, Bradshaw added, are particularly valuable for emerging filmmakers like Manning Walker, since it means that “you can come away from Cannes with a prize which is absolute gold for a distributor or sales agent.”

Lately, Un Certain Regard has launched many of Cannes’s most discussed films, such as the lavish Austrian drama “Corsage” (2022), the rugged Icelandic epic “Godland” (2022) and the polarizing Belgian film “Girl” (2018), about a transgender ballet dancer.

In his email, Frémaux stressed that the same committee curated the entire festival program, the “sélection officielle,” which includes various noncompetitive sections in addition to the main slate competition and Un Certain Regard. How a film winds up in one section or another, he stresses, is anything but arbitrary.

“The most important thing is that each film, for what it is, finds its best place,” he said. Noting that young filmmakers, including first-time directors, can be selected for the main competition and even win prizes there, Frémaux explained that sometimes a film initially selected for Un Certain Regard has ended up in competition.

“It’s important to take risks, as this allows us to make new discoveries,” he said. At the same time, he emphasized that Un Certain Regard is where many filmmakers feel most at home at Cannes, away from the hue and cry of the main competition. But he also cautioned against the perception of Un Certain Regard as the festival’s second tier.

“When U.C.R. was created, it did indeed look like an inferior section,” he said, but added that “U.C.R. has indeed found a real identity in recent years, because we’ve changed its mission. It’s no longer the ‘second division,’ it’s a section in its own right.”

“Even without Un Certain Regard, you can’t see everything,” Bradshaw said of the often-hectic experience of being at Cannes. “But it does create a new level of FOMO, because you think, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s some brilliant movie that everybody’s talking about,’ and ‘you might not have seen it because it’s slightly off the beaten track.’ And of course, once that gets out, everybody scrambles to try and see the hot film that everybody’s talking about. In a way, Un Certain Regard is almost brilliantly constructed to create this alternative reality,” he said.

Over the past decade, many of the filmmakers most closely associated with Cannes got their start in Un Certain Regard. A decade before Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” (2019) won both the Palme d’Or, and the Academy Award for best picture, the Korean director’s film “Mother” stunned the Un Certain Regard audience. And the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, who won Palmes for “The Square” (2017) and “Triangle of Sadness”(2022), took home the Un Certain Regard jury prize for “Force Majeure” in 2014.

Another example is Xavier Dolan, the 35-year-old French Canadian auteur who serves as the Un Certain Regard jury president this year. Two of his films, “Heartbeats” (2010) — made when Dolan was 21 — and “Laurence Anyways” (2012), were shown in Un Certain Regard. His next two features “Mommy” (2014) and “It’s Only the End of the World” (2016) both won top prizes in the main competition.

The jury this year also includes Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps, who won the Un Certain Regard prize for best actress for “Corsage”; the Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir, winner of last year’s Un Certain Regard directing prize; the French director Maïmouna Doucouré, whose 2020 film “Cuties” weathered controversy over its portrayal of young girls in a hypersexualized culture; and the American film critic and historian Todd McCarthy. They will judge an international lineup of 18 films, including eight feature debuts.

“Last year was a great year,” wrote Frémaux of Un Certain Regard, calling out “How to Have Sex,” El Moudir’s award-winning documentary “The Mother of All Lies,” and Thomas Cailley’s dystopian fantasy, “The Animal Kingdom,” which went on to win five César Awards (the French equivalent to the Oscars).

“I believe that what young filmmakers are putting forward this year is also very exciting, you will see,” Frémaux added.

As Un Certain Regard’s reputation as a reliable launchpad for the best of world cinema has grown, some consider it even more interesting and vital than the main competition. Among certain critics, Bradshaw of the Guardian suggested, this attitude has practically become a cliché.

“And sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not,” he explained.

“It’s very important as part of Cannes’s presence in terms of international cinema that they can cover the waterfront in Un Certain Regard and find some prize winners and really good movies that can become critical darlings all over the world,” he added.

Manning Walker, who is currently developing her second feature as part of a residency in Paris sponsored by Cannes’s program for emerging filmmakers, the Cinéfondation, said that winning Un Certain Regard’s main prize piqued audience interest in “How To Have Sex,” and also helped it get taken seriously in the industry.

“Through Cannes, we got to travel really far with the film,” she said.

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