The Cannes Film Festival and the Excesses of Auteurism
by Virginia Wright Wexman — Northwestern University
September 13, 2010 – 00:01
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.