It would be a fairy tale if it weren’t true. The perfect film festival picks the perfect jury and the perfect jury picks the perfect film. The 2010 Golden Palm went to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a masterpiece from Thailand. Much more of this – Cannes picked the right winner last year with The White Ribbon while Venice and Berlin got it right with, respectively, Lebanon and Honey – and we’ll all start thinking we live in a just world.
Screened on the penultimate day, Uncle Boonmee is utterly captivating. I haven’t always “got” the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I loved Tropical Malady (2004); I was mystified by Syndromes and a Century (2006). The new film is bemusing at times but bewitching at others. Sometimes it takes the breath away. By the close it has invaded your brain and heart and soul.
The cast of characters tells you the worldly/unworldly tone. A dying man, Uncle Boonmee; his family; the dead wife and son who return as casual ghosts, the second a 6ft-tall monkey with glowing red eyes. One episode – a fantasy? a flashback? – features a princess who mates with a catfish under a waterfall. There is a trip through jungles to a womb-like cave. Near the close, two avatars leave the bodies of two characters, right there on screen, and go off to have a restaurant meal. (Well, you’ve got to eat out sometimes.)
For contrasting clinical realism there is the spaghetti-like tubing that emerges from the belly of Uncle Boonmee, a kidney-failure patient (like Apichatpong’s father). These squeamishness-inviting scenes humanise and earth the fantasy. We are watching real people after all, real people coping with life, death and thoughts of after-death. Ultimately the film’s six parts, which at times can seem six different stories, blend like the colours of a prism. By the close you feel as if you have walked through the heart of a rainbow.
France’s Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, won the runner-up Special Jury Prize. Praised on this page before, it’s the soberly compelling tale, based on truth, of seven French monks in Algeria taken to their deaths by Islamic terrorists. Acting awards went to Juliette Binoche, enriching a dryish script in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and ex aequo to Spain’s Javier Bardem (Biutiful) and Italy’s Elio Germano (La Nostra Vita). French actor-filmmaker Mathieu Amalric was flattered by the Best Director award (Tournée). Lee Chang-dong was short-changed by the Best Screenplay prize. His haunting, richly crafted Poetry deserved more.
Elsewhere the festival in its last days was like an overripe watermelon, falling apart a little more with each touch. One day we got the pips, from South Korea’s Hahaha, a fey, garrulous romcom inexplicably handed the Prix Un Certain Regard (main sideshow award). The previous day we got the rind, rough and rancid: Rachid (Natives) Bouchareb’s Hors-la-Loi, crudely melodramatising the rise of the Algerian liberation movement through the lives of three brothers. Preceded by a press furore – France’s colonial history in north Africa is still a live topic – the film plays like a Mario Puzo epic directed by a hammed-up Sergio Leone.
The chatter at Cannes, or the chatter amplified by the media, was that this was a disappointing festival. Was it? The competition didn’t have last year’s stellar line-up of directors. The sideshows (Directors’ Fortnight, Un Certain Regard) were a little flat. But no festival can be written off in which a great film won the top prize and three outstanding films, Palm-worthy in another Cannes – Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier, Lee’s Poetry and Mike Leigh’s Another Year – mustered just one minor prize between them.