Lars von Trier will return – but can Cannes cope without him?

With the rise of Toronto and Venice, France's film festival may need all the big-name European friends it can get

Did Lars von Trier overstep the mark in his jokey association with Hitler? At a week's distance from the hoo-hah, it looks like the wrong question. What perhaps ought to be asked is: can Cannes afford to exile its own enfant terrible at a potentially vulnerable time for the festival?

For despite Von Trier's hat-trick of apologies, the board's decision to declare him persona non grata is beginning to look like an own goal. Von Trier is, along with Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke, one of a few semi-mainstream European auteurs who've been championed by Cannes so long and so fruitfully they'd be damned if they were to defect to a rival event. Now, Von Trier's loyalty to the Riviera need never be tested.

What the incident does, now the dust has settled, is highlight the shifting sands of various festivals. The obvious relocation destination for future Von Trier premieres is Venice, which begins in early September: a touch more glam than Berlin in February, though still close enough to home to mean Von Trier (who doesn't fly) could put in an appearance. Yet Venice itself is increasingly vulnerable to the ascendancy of Toronto, which kicks off just as the credits roll on the Lido and is increasingly seen as the launchpad of choice ahead of awards season – especially, and crucially, when it comes to US films.

And it's with the Americans that Cannes appears to be losing most ground. There were only two US films in competition this year, one of which won the Palme d'Or, the other the best director award (and the man in the chair for that one, Nicolas Winding Refn, is actually from Copenhagen).

The number has diminished rapidly over the past decade. Last year there was only one (Doug Liman's duffer Fair Game), the previous year two (Inglourious Basterds, Taking Woodstock). But in 2008 there were four (Changeling, Che, Synecdoche, New York and Two Lovers), five in 2007 (Death Proof, No Country for Old Men, Paranoid Park, We Own the Night, Zodiac) and six in 2005 (Broken Flowers, Don't Come Knocking, Last Days, Sin City, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, A History of Violence).

The logic is a no-brainer. Launching in May either means the movie will be rushed out stateside (as with The Tree of Life, which opens over there and in most of the rest of Europe in the next couple of weeks) or that the buzz will have dangerously quietened by the time the more usual autumn release comes around, and be muted even further when Oscars voters are scratching their heads in the spring (remember The Social Network's early-ish release was credited with causing a drop in momentum that cost it dearly at this year's Academy Awards).

Not that directors themselves wouldn't like to debut at Cannes: one rumour doing the rounds this year was that Alexander Payne, whose About Schmidt was in competition in 2002, was refused permission by his studio to premiere The Descendants in France. For US titles, it's increasingly either a case of getting them out in time for Sundance and hoping for a slow-burn Precious effect, or saving them up for Toronto or Venice.

Does it matter? A little. The London film festival is also losing out to those two big-hitters, despite actually coming afterwards (last year's event had no big premieres at all – not even of British titles such as Submarine, Made in Dagenham or Never Let Me Go, all of which premiered a few weeks before at Toronto).

Cannes will survive, of course, and its reputation as the classiest European festival may well be enhanced by the fact it will need to fill the programme with arthouse fare in lieu of big titles from across the pond. If so, it needs to ensure it keeps a check on that strange symbiotic relationship that sees it regularly used as a sun-dappled, out-of-competition berth for early summer blockbusters of dubious quality (Pirates 4 this year; Indiana Jones 4 and Star Wars 6 in recent memory). That's fine – fun, even. But if those were the only US films screening, Cannes could be in trouble.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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