Another Piece, on “Timbuktu”

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s review of “Leviathan.” I also wrote about Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” the Oscar nominee from Mauritania, for The New Republic as well. Check it out!

Summer’s Sleep

In a year where no one film appeared to set the Croisette alight, the Competition jury’s awards seemed set to be a particularly mixed bag. Of course, attempting to predict the Cannes results is an even more foolhardy errand than tracking the Oscars – with a new selection of jurors every year, there’s no accounting for past tastes. One can try to guess what Jane Campion would favor based on her personal style and industry presence, but one never knows where or if a filmmaker’s patterns of production and consumption will overlap – Steven Spielberg and his jury going for “Blue Is the Warmest Color” last year is a pretty sterling example of the left-field subversion that can pop up at any moment.

So what did Campion and crew decide on in the end? Let’s take a brief look:

Palme d’Or (first place): “Winter’s Sleep,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Grand Prix (second place): “The Wonders,” Alice Rohrwacher

Best Director: Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”

Prix du Jury (third place): (TIE) “Goodbye to Language,” Jean-Luc Godard, and “Mommy,” Xavier Dolan

Best Actor: Timothy Spall, “Mr. Turner”

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, “Maps to the Stars”

Best Screenplay: “Leviathan,” Andrei Zvyagintsev

Camera d’Or (best debut in the Official Selection): “Party Girl,” Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis

It’s rare that the odds-on favorite going into the festival actually prevails at Cannes, but that’s what happened this time, with Turkish director Ceylan’s three-hour, philosophical/conversational essay piece “Winter’s Sleep” winning over Campion’s jury and reasserting just about every stereotype of art-house cinema in the process. It was one of the more divisive entries in the Competition, with responses torn between admiration for Ceylan’s ambition and formal abilities and quite a bit of eye-rolling at what many will perceive as a pretentious and self-indulgent excuse for a diatribe. But Ceylan is one of the most respected international filmmakers that you’ve never heard of – he’s won the Grand Prix twice and Best Director once at this festival before, so there certainly was a sense that he was in line to be rewarded.

The late-breaking “Leviathan,” which screened second to last in the Competition and seemed to emerge as the critical consensus choice for the Palme, had to make do with the relatively minor award for Best Screenplay. I would say not to be too concerned for the film’s fate, that it would appear marked for some end-of-year critic’s picks and a run at the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but Zvyagintsev’s parabolic indictment of social corruption has already run afoul of the Putin regime – the Russian Ministry of Culture has already expressed its displeasure with the film’s critical commentary, and its chances of being selected as the country’s Oscar submission seem low. I try not to second-guess festival picks, considering I have of course not seen any of the films in question, but this seems something of a missed opportunity to truly stand up for freedom of expression on a major international stage.

One thing we could almost certainly count on was that Campion, the only female director ever to win the Palme, and her female-majority jury (Sofia Coppola, French actress Carole Bouquet, Iranian actress Leila Hatami, and South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon being joined by Willem Dafoe, Gael García Bernal, Nicolas Winding Refn and Chinese director Jia Zhangke) would support the notoriously underrepresented women filmmakers in the Competition. And indeed, first-time competitor Alice Rohrwacher’s “Dogtooth”-esque family/beekeeping tale “The Wonders” was something of a “surprise” pick for the runner-up Grand Prix slot. For a moment even, tracking the announcements live, I thought the two women might go one-two, as rumors had been swirling that Naomi Kawase had also been called back to the Cannes red carpet. That would have been a mighty bold statement to the festival organizers, but “Still the Water” went home empty-handed after all, probably to the delight of a number of snarky Twitterers who jumped on the director earlier in the week for seeming to “beg” for the Palme. Surely, publicly calling one’s own film “my masterpiece” is asking for trouble, but I can’t help but think she was just trying to take pride in her work and that ultimately, all that matters is whether the film delivers or not – as is the case with every single other movie, ever.

The jury did also reward two more of the festival’s scant female filmmakers with the Camera d’Or, the selection for the best debut film by a director anywhere in the Official Selection (including not only the Competition slate, but the Un Certain Regard and Director’s Fortnight sidebars). The co-created “Party Girl” was one of the most well-received Un Certain Regard selections, so it certainly seems a worthy choice – Ryan Gosling’s less-loved “Lost River” will surely get its fair share of attention stateside anyway. The typical aversion of Cannes juries to American fare that is all but guaranteed to resurface later in the year makes the selection of Bennett Miller for Best Director for his third feature, “Foxcatcher,” all the more impressive. It’s a strong start to what will now be a very long awards season for the film and its well-received performances from Steve Carell and Channing Tatum; but let’s not start thinking about that just yet.

Elsewhere, old Cannes mainstays Ken Loach and the Dardennes brothers shockingly came away with nothing from the jury – the Dardennes failing to pick up any prize at all for the first time ever in their Competition careers. But the old guard was represented by cinema’s greatest curmudgeon, as Jean-Luc Godard’s typically inscrutable string of images (now in 3D!) “Goodbye to Language” took half of the third-place Jury Prize. He shared with Xavier Dolan and “Mommy,” one of the more formally daring and much-discussed entries; an unexpectedly appropriate gesture, considering the Canadian enfant terrible‘s certain stylistic resemblance to a young Godard, and a kind of poignant recognition of both the youngest and eldest filmmakers in the Competition in one fell swoop.

Finally, Campion’s jury summarized its mix of the eclectic and the expected with its acting choices: Timothy Spall’s performance as J.M.W. Turner, like “Winter’s Sleep,” had widely been pegged as a winner before the festival even started, while Julianne Moore’s broadly satiric comic turn in David Cronenberg’s gonzo “Maps to the Stars” was a more off-beat choice. Moore becomes only the fourth actor ever (after Juliette Binoche, Sean Penn and Jack Lemmon) to collect leading acting prizes from all three of the major European festivals at Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

Other films that were broadly admired but perhaps not adored, including Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” the Dardennes’ “Two Nights, One Day,” Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” and Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” will hope to find their audiences even without a Cannes prize. In a year where only Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive” and Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Search” were generally dismissed and/or reviled, something had to give. As always, we are left wondering why certain titles from Un Certain Regard (“Party Girl,” Jessica Housner’s “Amour Fou,” Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” Ruben Östland’s “Force Majeure,” Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God”) couldn’t have made the leap, but so it goes. Another year, as Mike Leigh might put it.

For Your Consideration: May 16, 2014

From a biopic of Joseph Mallord Turner to a comedy pitting gay rights activists against striking miners, from a mountainous meditation on isolation to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is filled with gems from near and far, diverse in both its topics and its nations. While we’re sure that one day we’ll be strolling down la Croisette and bringing you reviews live from France, for now we picked three of our favorite films that have taken home the coveted Palme d’Or. 

– Elaine

“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)

Cast: Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Vasily Merkurev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova

Available for instant streaming, with subtitles, on YouTube and Hulu Pluson disc from Netflix

“The Cranes Are Flying” opens, like many a film, with a pair of young lovers walking home in the morning, laughing about their night out, making plans, and shushing each other for being too loud. But then it takes an unusual turn. As Boris is about to leave his beloved Veronica, he suddenly remembers something and sprints back up the stairs of the apartment building, the camera following him in a dizzying blur as he completes each ascending circle. It’s a startling choice by director Mikhail Kalatozov, but one that returns in lyrical, poignant fashion as the movie continues.

It is one of many colorful touches in this artful, sensitive testament the Russian people and their struggle in the Second World War. Unlike many Soviet depictions of the Great Patriotic War, it does not shy away from the uglier aspects of the time, from draft dodging to the black market to the wounded and dead. Its realism makes it a rich historical document; the lead performance by Tatiana Samoilova, who passed away earlier this month, makes it unforgettable. Made only four years after Stalin’s death, “The Cranes Are Flying” marked the beginning of Russia’s thaw with the West, and remains to date the only Russian film to win the Palme d’Or. Should Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a meditation on the human condition based on the Book of Job, claim the top prize this year, it would be joining mighty company.

– Elaine

“Paris, Texas” (1984)

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Aurore Clément, Nastassja Kinski

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, iTunes; on disc from Netflix

Roger Ebert once wrote that “Paris, Texas” is a story of “loss upon loss.” When we first meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, in one of the all-time great screen performances), he’s wandering the deserts of Texas – no family, no purpose, barely even a name or a memory. Wim Wenders’ gentle, deliberately paced masterpiece will both build Travis back up from and strip him down again to that state, as we slowly piece together the path that led this ragged, broken man to abandon civilization altogether. The hole that he’s stumbled into is self-made, but will he manage to clamber back out again?

A modern rejiggering of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Wenders’ unanimous Palme winner is first and foremost about a man who doesn’t fit in society, and his search for a woman burdened with being his only link to redemption. The German director’s main narrative addition to the formula, however, is the presence of Travis’ son – a suggestion of fatherhood as an alternate path for Travis to escape his self-destruction. But beyond that, what sets “Paris, Texas” apart is Wenders’ peculiar brand of magical realism: like “Wings of Desire,” the setting and narrative trappings are the stuff of mundanity (Peter Falk getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, Harry Dean Stanton ambling into a dive bar as the worn-out sign creaks in the desert breeze), but the archetypical sense of questing for fulfillment and absolution catapults the film into the realm of fable and myth.

– Ethan

“Barton Fink” (1991)

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito

Available streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant, iTunes

Even for the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” is a weird, weird film. You could call it the Coens’ David Lynch movie, their Kafka movie, their Faulkner movie, and their Wallace Beery movie and technically you’d be right on all counts. If it’s about anything at all, it’s about artistic frustration – supposedly spawned during the troubles the brothers had while writing “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” follows a successful Broadway playwright (Turturro) who quickly finds himself completely out of his element when offered a Hollywood studio contract. What follows is a hodgepodge of literary allusions, religious overtones and horror film tropes that somehow adds up to a comprehensive and utterly bizarre vision of what it’s like to have writer’s block. Turturro and Goodman are standouts but as always the Coens brilliantly cast right down to the smallest bit players; Michael Lerner’s portrayal of the Louis B. Mayer-esque studio head Lipnick is a particular delight.

– Ethan