Cannes Film Festival: This, that and The Other

A Cannes jury that in early days looked as if it would have to go out and hire a winner – such was the dearth of deserving Palm contenders – ended up like a nine-headed Buridan’s ass. Spoiled for choice, which way should they look? There was this (Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life) and there was that (the Dardennes’ Le Gamin au vélo). There were half a dozen “thoses” (Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist). And of course there was The Other. The film that must not be named. Melancho- ssh! Lars von – no, no, don’t say it.

As readers know, I have already sided with the supposed devil. Lars “Lucifer” von Trier got carried away by too much publicity-hungry mischief-making and is now cast out. For some, though, he was Lucifer in the best sense, the competition’s light-bringer.

Though The Tree of Life was named best film – for much the same reason people are said to climb Everest (it was big and it was there) – Malick’s inflated pantheism, poetic one moment, portentous the next, has nothing on Trier’s flickering cinematic fire and bold, outrageous story-making.

The Tree of Life, delineating how life evolved on earth over millennia from the Big Bang to Brad Pitt, is a Stanley Kubrick film in religious raiment. There are soaring wonders next to crushing pieties. By contrast, Melancholia begins by taking the audience’s breath away – with its preludial tableaux of apocalypse – and ends up taking away the characters’ breath. An astonishing collision is engineered between the microcosmic, the nuances of social and psychological breakdown, and the macrocosmic, namely an earth-headed planet. Losing to Malick’s mysticism, Melancholia was consoled with a Best Actress prize for Kirsten Dunst, excellent in the film but also rewarded, we suspect, for tut-tutting demonstratively at the press conference during her director’s quasi-Nazi ramblings.

The runner-up Grand Jury prize was shared between Le Gamin au vélo and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia from Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The second film was a brave choice. Did jury president Robert De Niro find a calling echo in the title, so like his and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America? Or did the jury recognise the dark purpose and clever design in a 2½-hour “police procedural” that ranges across a provincial landscape, laying open not just a murder but a society?

Nicolas Winding Refn – a Danish film-maker (yes, stick the knife in Trier and twist it) – was named Best Director for the thriller Drive, a moderately stylish bit of Hollywood hokum. Jean Dujardin won Best Actor for his sprightly mugging in the pastiche silent-era comedy The Artist. Best Screenplay went to Israel’s Joseph Cedar for Footnote, his witty, C.P. Snowish tale of strife in academia. The Jury prize, in many years a meaningless bauble, was meaningless again this year. The winner was the unwieldy French cop movie Poliss.

Who said Robert De Niro wouldn’t be a hands-on Cannes president? Three varyingly violent police dramas won awards; a major winner had a soundalike title to a De Niro classic; and the top gong went America’s way, assuring the world that God created the USA first, after the dinosaurs, and the rest of civilisation later.

Never mind. Cannes 2011 proved an enjoyable, even a rich festival. Little space is left to mention late-showing curios, but Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place stood out. Sean Penn, fresh (sort of) from The Tree of Life, plays a soft-spoken, medium-dim rock star – an Ozzy Osbourne ventriloquised by Michael Jackson – hunting down the Nazi concentration camp guard who persecuted his father.

The film doesn’t quite live up to its plot idea. What could? But it typified the bizarre variety of ingredients found at Cannes, sometimes within single films.

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