As the film festivals 72nd edition begins, disputes surrounding gender parity, Netflix and Quentin Tarantino wont go away

When Thierry Frmaux, artistic director of the Cannes film festival, held the traditional press conference in April to announce the lineup of the 72nd edition, one big name was conspicuous by its absence. Quentin Tarantinos Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the auteur directors take on late-60s, Manson-traumatised Los Angeles, was, Frmaux said, not ready; its failure to meet the deadline would be a big loss for the festival, depriving it of one of its favourite master directors and the immense firepower of its cast Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino.

Quick guide

Cannes 2019

When and where is it?

The festival takes place in the French resort town of Cannes in the late spring, normally in mid-May – this year it’s 14-25 May.

What are the big films?

Twenty-one films have been selected to compete for the Palme d’Or (aka Golden Palm), including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino, A Hidden Life by Terrance Malick, and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. There are also a number of special screenings, including Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona documentary, Elton John biopic Rocketman, and Gael Garca Bernal’s directorial debut Chicuarotes. There are two parallel festivals, the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week, each with their own line-up.

What about all the paparazzi?

Cannes isn’t just about the art of film. Every night sees a large-scale premiere with a walk up the famous red-carpeted steps outside the giant Lumire cinema. (That’s why the festival likes selecting films with big-name Hollywood actors.) Cannes also finds lots of excuses to bring in major stars: for example, 1982’s Rambo: First Blood is getting a screening, meaning Sylvester Stallone will pitch up on the Riviera.

Fortunately for all concerned, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did manage to make the party: Frmaux was able to announce its inclusion a few days later, saying that Tarantino has not left the editing room in four months. Having won the Palme dOr, the festivals highest award, in 1994 for his second feature, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino will be able to join the other big beasts in Cannes, including the UKs Ken Loach (with gig economy drama Sorry We Missed You), Spains Pedro Almodvar (film industry memoir Pain and Glory) and the Dardenne brothers from Belgium with radicalisation drama The Young Ahmed. A Hidden Life, a new film by another American auteur, Terrence Malick, about anti-Nazi activist Franz Jgersttter, is also due to premiere at the festival, but Malick has been a famously elusive figure for decades and is not likely to attend.

Behind the hoopla and star power, however, a number of controversies lie in ambush. Tarantino himself could well be in the firing line, as critics wait to see if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood crosses the taste and decency line in its treatment of the real-life savagery of the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, the then-wife of film-maker Roman Polanski. Tarantinos films have a record of extreme violence, and the director himself has not emerged from the industry reckoning over #MeToo with much credit, after accusations emerged of his treatment of Uma Thurman during the making of Kill Bill for which he apologised, and his 2003 comments about Polanskis 1977 sexual abuse case, in which he said Polanskis 13-year-old victim was down with it.

Cannes eager embrace of Tarantino also throws into sharp relief the sluggish progress the festival has made in including female film-makers in its selection. After Frmaux signed a pledge at the 2018 edition aiming to improve gender parity at the festival, this year only four films with female directors (out of 21 in total) have been selected for the prestigious competition section. This still represents a record four women were also selected in 2011 but is not enough to satisfy activists, who staged a silent protest on the Palais des Festivals steps in 2018. Melissa Silverstein, founder of campaign group Women and Hollywood, said: There are different excuses each year. Instead of being defensive, wed like [Frmaux] to embrace the issue and be a leader. However Frmaux refused to say that Cannes was aiming for gender parity in its selection. At the festivals opening press conference, he said: People ask Cannes to do things they dont ask other festivals to do The Cannes film festival is asked to be impeccable and perfect. No one has asked me to have 50% of films made by women. That would show a lack of respect.

Red-carpet treatment … Quentin Tarantino. Photograph: Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty Images

Small improvements have been made with the introduction of family-friendly facilities, such as a nappy changing area and list of childminders; these complement the hotline to report harassment that was set up last year. On the other hand, the decision to honour veteran French actor Alain Delon with an honorary Palme dOr has been greeted with dismay by campaigners, who point to Delons history of misogynist comments and far-right politics. French feminist organisation Osez le fminisme said: Cannes is sending a negative signal to women and victims of violence by honouring Delon in spite of the fact that he admitted to having slapped women. Frmaux responded by saying: Were not going to give the Nobel peace prize to Alain Delon He is entitled to express his views. Today it is very difficult to honour somebody because you have a sort of political police that falls on you.

Cannes other exposed flank is its continuing row with streaming giant Netflix, which remains unresolved. French distributors reacted angrily after two high-profile films Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories distributed by Netflix appeared in the 2017 competition, despite the streamers refusal to adhere to the French practice of giving films a 36-month exclusive window to cinema showings. Netflix boycotted Cannes in 2018, giving its plum project, the Alfonso Cuarn-directed Roma to Cannes Italian rival, the Venice film festival. No Netflix films will appear in 2019 either, although it appears the leading contenders Martin Scorseses mob drama The Irishman and Steven Soderberghs Panama Papers investigative story The Laundromat were not going to be completed in time.

The Cannes film festival runs from 14-25 May.

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