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All was aghast silence during the prizes evening at Cannes. You didn’t even hear a pin drop. That was probably because spectators were saving their pins up to stick in effigies of the jury.
I have witnessed decades of daft festival prizes but never the likes of this. Don’t misunderstand. Colleagues and I do not dislike Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, nor do we begrudge him a second Palme d’Or. The new film, you could argue, is better than the bombast-prone The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach’s 2006 winner. Even so it’s a simple, often simple-minded tale: one-sided in its pillorying of British government welfare policy, one-directional in its movement towards an ending that blends pathos with preaching as Geordie joiner (Dave Johns) and Newcastle single mum (Hayley Squires) reach to resolve their common struggle against poverty.
The film’s ace is its acting. But first-timer Squires ceded Best Actress to Jaclyn Jose in Ma’ Rosa from the Philippines, a cruder performance in a cruder film. Obviousness and one-dimensionality were virtues for the jury this year. Shahab Hosseini was named Best Actor in Iran’s The Salesman, which also won Best Screenplay for writer-director Asghar Farhadi. It’s a stagy movie, best in its moments of quiet moral anguish, worst when coarsely mimicking Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the play-within-a-play that parallels Farhadi’s themes of family pain and ethical crisis.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a British filmmaker’s vibrantly accomplished American road epic, was palmed off with a Jury Prize (lowest bauble on the list). The Best Director award was sliced in half — when one thought this judgment-of-Solomon inanity was ending at Cannes — so that France’s Olivier Assayas of the beguiling Personal Shopper had to share with Romania’s Cristian Mungiu of Graduation, a well-written and well-acted tale the least of whose virtues was its direction.
The only prize I hurrahed was one everyone else hated. Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, winning the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, is a play adaptation but a fierily inventive one. If it isn’t as good as this year’s films by Pedro Almodóvar, Jim Jarmusch or Cristi Puiu — to name but three who went prizeless — it isn’t a rank imposter in the line-up. The judges may also have liked the notion of the youngest director Dolan, 27, and the oldest director Loach, a month off 80, divvying the top gongs.
It had been such a good festival up to this, and so outstanding a competition, that there had to be tears before bedtime. Even the last movies in contention indicated crackup. Sean Penn’s The Last Face is preternatural piffle. Mixing pulp and pulpit, this toxic cocktail of art-o-tainment has camera angles queueing for pseuds’ corner, miracles of portentous meaninglessness in the dialogue (“There’s something in propinquity that’s not to be confused with fate”), and two enamoured aid workers in Africa, Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, exchanging sweet nothings between freighting up with frowns to fight famine, war and atrocity.
After that came the competition’s catchpenny-titillation coda. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon — sex and horror — was all about predatory LA supermodels. Topless cannibalism; vomited eyeballs; Jena Malone having sex with a mortuary corpse. Not to be outdone, Dutchman Paul Verhoeven — who quit his own LA heyday (Basic Instinct) long ago to re-berth in Europe — sends Isabelle Huppert to Elle and back. That’s the film’s title, changed from novelist Philippe Djian’s rape-without-tears bestseller Oh . . . Huppert gets ravished more than once and finds she likes it. The movie was shown on the last day, so there weren’t enough feminists left to burn the cinema down. Huppert is great. What else is new? With what else can Cannes surprise, satisfy or stupefy us? We’ll find out in 2017.