Cabbages and Cannes

Last year, a little French movie called “The Artist” collected its first of what would prove to be a plethora of trophies when Jean Dujardin picked up the Best Actor prize at Cannes. The Palme d’Or went to a little movie you may have heard of called “The Tree of Life,” Best Director went to near-Oscar-spoiler Nicolas Winding Refn of “Drive,” and Best Actress went to another fringe awards contender in Kirsten Dunst for “Melancholia.” “Midnight in Paris” opened the fest out of competition, while “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Skin I Live In,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Footnote” all recevied their international debuts on the Croisette.

My point? The 2011 Cannes festival had an unusually strong impact on the shape of last year’s awards season (and on the fall/winter lineup for many independent movie theaters). This year’s competition selections, which on the whole seems to have been received with a resounding “meh” from the critics, doesn’t seem to have lit the cinematic scene on fire in quite the same way, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some intriguing titles and narratives to keep an eye on.

The extremely non-controversial lineup was probably presaged by the selection of Nanni Moretti as this year’s jury president. Generally a director of pleasant humanist comedies such as last year’s Cannes selection “We Have a Pope,” the jury was likely a bit predisposed against more adventurous material, a solid explanation for the lack of love for “Holy Motors,” a brazen thriller about a man living no less than eleven parallel lives (not even Denis Lavant, the respected French actor forever endeared at least to me for his role in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” could pick up an award for his apparently awe-inspiring chameleon performance).

So the consensus was that 2012 would in fact come down to a replay of 2009, and a showdown for the Palme d’Or between European heavyweights Michael Haneke and Jacques Audiard. Haneke won out in 2009 when “The White Ribbon” beat Audiard’s “A Prophet,” and Sunday spelt a second straight victory for the German provocateur, as his low-key drama of octogenarians dealing with love and loss, “Amour,” took home Cannes’ biggest prize, sweeping aside any arguments of “too obvious” or “he already has one.” In fact, it turned out Audiard’s latest feature, “Rust and Bone,” about an unemployed young man (Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in the Oscar-nominated “Bullhead”) who falls in love with a killer whale trainer (Marion Cotillard), apparently wasn’t anywhere close, and couldn’t pick up any awards.

The runner-up awards went to less expected corners: Matteo Garrone won his second Grand Prix (his last second place finish was in 2008, for “Gomorrah”) for “Reality,” a reality-TV satire that most critics had considered slight. Even slighter was the third place Jury Prize winner “The Angel’s Share,” a breezy comedy from Irish auteur Ken Loach. The award may have simply served as a middle finger to the critics who think that Loach receives an unfair amount of attention from the Cannes organizers (Loach has had a whopping 11 films selected to play in competition, a number unmatched by basically anyone).

But besides “Amour” it sure feels like the overall favorite of the jury (which, besides Maretti, included Alexander Payne, Hiam Abbass, Ewan McGregor, Diane Kruger, Andrea Arnold and Emmanuelle Devos among others) was Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills,” about two young women at an Orthodox convent. Mungiu previously took home the Palme d’Or for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” and this time around collected Best Screenplay and a shared Best Actress prize for Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, his two young leads. I’m happy for these surely promising actresses, but what a pleasure it would have been for Emmanuelle Riva, the female lead of “Amour,” to take home a prize 53 years after her last Cannes-selected film, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” was disqualified from competition in order to avoid offending the U.S. government (especially since that film’s now 90-year-old director, Alain Resnais, was also in attendance, showing off his latest feature “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”).

Best Actor, meanwhile, went to renowned Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (none to most as the blood-weeping villain from “Casino Royale”), playing a schoolteacher falsely accused of pedophilia in the melodramatic “The Hunt.” The most controversial decision was surely a Best Director award for Carlos Reygadas and his film “Post Tenebras Lux,” an intentionally provocative non-narrative gallery art piece that earned a smattering of boos and walk-outs at its press screening.

Far less controversial was the entire American slate, an impressive 5 films (you’ll recall that the number of American offerings at Cannes had slipped to as low as 1 a few years ago) that nonetheless pretty much all seemed to stray toward solid but unremarkable genre work, at least if the international critics are to be believed (and trust me, they aren’t always). Films like “Lawless” by John Hillcoat (“The Road,” “The Proposition”), “Killing Them Softly” by Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James”) and “Mud” by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Shotgun Stories”) all received basically polite praise but nothing like the instant acclaim of some of their past features. That means just about nothing for the awards race on this side of the pond, though – “No Country for Old Men” received the same tepid reception at Cannes before lighting it up at Toronto later in the year.

Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is getting his best reviews since, well, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and seems pretty squarely in his wheelhouse, so if you like that (like me), good, if not, stay away. Meanwhile Lee Daniels’ campy, vampy pulp thriller “The Paperboy” apparently features Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron at some point, so if that sounds like something you want to see, I suppose you should be excited. The most mixed reaction to a North American film went to David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” apparently a very faithful adaptation of Dom DeLillo’s novel that has Cronenberg back in bizarro land after his relatively mainstream trio of “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method.” Critics seemed delighted that the Canadian auteur is back in Cronenbergian territory, but seem to think the material is almost TOO obvious for him – you know, like Tim Burton doing a “Dark Shadows” movie. Having never really gotten to witness Cronenberg in his extreme glory, I’m still intrigued, anyway.

Rounding out that chorus of “wait ’til next year” were films like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love,” an apparently less engaging and generally inferior companion piece to his last film “Certified Copy,” a serviceable adaptation of “On the Road” by Walter Salles (most of the praise was simply congrats to Salles for finally getting the damn film made after decades of aborted Hollywood attempts), and “In the Fog,” a Russian drama that seems destined to end up as this year’s token WWII film in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.

One last thing to note (and something that may indeed impact the American film scene) was the Camera d’Or award for best debut feature shown at the festival (whether in the Competition, Un Certain Regard or Director’s Fortnight lineup). This year the award went to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” by Benh Zeitlin, which after much success at Sundance in February seems poised to be this year’s indie darling. Check out the trailer at the bottom of this post.

So if I had to list the films from the festival that I’m most intrigued to see (excluding the American offerings, all of which I’m sure we’ll have another chance to look at), I’d go with “Amour,” “Rust and Bone,” “Holy Motors” and “The Hunt.” Anything stand out to you, dear reader?

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