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Director Matthew Rankin is bringing his second feature, the absurdist dramedy Universal Language, to Cannes’ parallel Directors’ Fortnight program.Supplied

The 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival arrives this week like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

If you want cultural controversy, you can follow the relentless gossip that a top-tier French media outlet will publish a bombshell #MeToo exposé accusing some of the country’s most revered filmmakers of sexual misconduct. If you want labour unrest, there’s the collective of freelance festival workers calling for a strike. And if you’re hungry for real-world politics, there is the good chance that the world’s most prestigious film event will be interrupted by at least one protest over the war in Gaza.

But the most unusual and unexpected plot line at this year’s Cannes is completely Canadian in nature. Specifically: How a fiercely determined group of Winnipeg filmmakers are storming the festival as if the French Riviera had morphed overnight into the Assiniboine River.

The Manitoba invasion is a battle being waged on two fronts. Leading the charge is Guy Maddin, who is making his long-deserved Cannes debut with Rumours, a political comedy starring Cate Blanchett that is co-directed with the filmmaker’s long-time collaborators, the brothers Evan and Galen Johnson. But coming up just behind Winnipeg’s favourite cinematic son is upstart director Matthew Rankin, who is bringing his second feature, the absurdist dramedy Universal Language, to Cannes’ parallel Directors’ Fortnight program.

On the surface, the two films couldn’t be further apart in both their vision or Winnipeg-ness.

Rumours, which the directors describe as a (deep breath) “cautionary dramedy cum erotico-ministerial techno-thriller and provisional Götterdämmerung,” was shot entirely in Hungary, and boasts a distinctly European vibe as it follows a group of politicians getting lost in the woods during a G7-like summit.

Universal Language, meanwhile, is almost entirely shot and set in a frigid and brutalist Winnipeg – or at least an imaginary version of it that feels equal parts Canada and Iran, with Tim Hortons signage in Farsi and the Guess Who songs recited by Persian poets, inspired by Rankin’s life-long fascination with the cinema of such Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami.

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Director Matthew Rankin.Supplied

Rumours is being pitched as an of-the-moment satire featuring top-tier actors (not only Blanchett, but also Alicia Vikander and Charles Dance, making for easily the starriest cast in Maddin’s career). Universal Language feels deliberately unstuck in time in its sensibilities, with its biggest cast member being Rankin himself.

Yet Rankin’s darkly beautiful and defiantly surrealist film feels like the continuation of a conversation that Maddin first started decades ago. And it is a dialogue that could only have come from a city of artists looking from the outside in.

“There’s something about living here rather than somewhere more central that might produce a kind of attitude – and not in a cool way, but more an obliviousness that I think has helped us as filmmakers,” says Evan Johnson, who alongside Galen has co-directed a number of features and shorts with Maddin over the past decade, including 2015′s The Forbidden Room.

“In the preinternet age, it helped in a different way,” adds Maddin. “There just wasn’t that much to do in Winnipeg, so instead of just talking about making a film like the artsy kids were doing in New York and Paris and even Toronto, I just got so bored that I’d work on my film and actually get things made.”

While the My Winnipeg director says that the rise of the online connectivity has produced more homogenization among young artists around the world, and thus a diminished sense of outsider attitude among Winnipeg filmmakers, “it still feels like when we go to other cities our pants are too short and there’s a collective sadness among us.”

Rankin, for his part, puts the city’s scene in more explicit terms.

“The Winnipeg that I’ve always loved is the counterculture, totally weird Winnipeg. Guy Maddin, John Paizs, these are my cinematic parents to a large degree,” says the director. “Winnipeg has always had this weird tension between punk-rock revolutionaries and corporate people trying to integrate it into the North American mainstream.”

Yet while Rankin notes that the city is still producing exciting new cinematic voices – name-checking Rhayne Vermette and Ryan Steel as filmmakers to watch – he also feels that Winnipeg’s arts scene is facing several extinction-level threats.

“They have a hard go of it now – look at the cultural devastation caused by the Hallmark movie movement, really the biggest cinematic movement in Canada right now, where Winnipeg is represented as this normcore Christmas town,” says the director, who now lives in Montreal. “And since the return of the Jets, the city has become more corporate. You see the independents having a harder time.”

Still, the spirit of Winnipeg, if not the contemporary reality, is set to thrive in Cannes – in its own way.

“I have different Cannes myths still floating in my head based on those photos of Marcello Mastroianni on the beach in the fifties. But I’ve heard the sand is pebbly, so I’m prepared for disappointment,” says Maddin with a laugh. “This is the Winnipeg perspective of low expectations. We can’t be grateful in a normal way.”

Rankin, whose Universal Language team is set to be 40-strong at the festival (including co-writers Ila Firouzabadi and Pirouz Nemati), says that the Cannes premiere is simply an added bonus of getting to produce a singular “Irano-Quebeco-Winnipego” story.

“It’s wonderful to go to Cannes, but if we had our world premiere at the Manitoba World Film Training Seminar, that’d be good, too.”

Canadians on the Croisette

In addition to Rumours and Universal Language, there are a number of other Canadian productions set to make a splash at Cannes this year, including: David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds, which focuses on a Toronto cemetery-owner (Vincent Cassel) whose controversial new grave-side technology makes dangerous waves within certain cultural and political circles; Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice, a Canada-Denmark-Ireland co-production tracing the toxic relationship between a young Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan) and notorious lawyer Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong); short films by Alison McAlpine (Perfectly a Strangeness) and Beza Hailu Lemma (Alazar); and immersive projects by Mathieu Pradat (The Roaming) and Emil Dam Seidel and Dorotea Saykaly (Telos I). B.H.

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