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The Palme d’Or, not for the first time, took us all by surprise. A French film tipped by almost no one, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, tipped the scales with the Cannes Film Festival jury. Impossible even to cry “chauvinism!”. The judges were led by America’s Coen brothers with only one French native, actress Sophie Marceau, in their midst. It was a verdict honestly reached. And who can honestly say there was a better — or significantly better — movie at this year’s festival?
Maddeningly — or mercifully since I would have downplayed its chances — Dheepan screened too late to feature in my last Cannes dispatch. I would have said, and say now, that veteran Cannes contender Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) keeps us enthralled for an hour or more. A refugee Tamil Tiger, played by real ex-rebel turned expatriate and writer Jesuthasan Anthonydasan, takes sanctuary with a pretended bride and daughter from his homeland, brought in tow to help the French asylum quest. But — irony — he meets much the same horrors, meted out by street gangs and turf-warring drug dealers, in France as in Asia. Cue conflagration. At which point Dheepan becomes a bit of an overcooked pizza.
The Rambo-like climactic action scenes belong to a different film. Then the English suburban coda belongs to a different film still. By the end, Dheepan resembles a Margherita that has collided in the oven with an over-singed Diavola and (inventing pizzas) a crisping Britannia. I suspect that, deep below the level of conscious conspiracy, the cinephile esprit du temps had decided Audiard was overdue for a Palme and this might as well be his year.
A worthier winner, and the only competition film that came close to unifying critics, won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize. Son of Saul, the first film from Hungary’s Laszlo Nemes, also won the International Critics Prize. This coruscating Holocaust movie, set in Auschwitz, makes audiences feel they have been set there too. We experience the horrors. A headlong moving camera leaves almost no death chamber unentered, no massacre unrecorded, as an interweaving plot — a Hungarian Jew’s search for a rabbi to bless a deceased “son” — becomes our guide and witness to history, our Dante’s Virgil in damnation’s vigil.
The rest of the prizes were a stick-a-pin-in-the-list selection. Surely there were stronger actresses than Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’s lesbian drama Carol — Cate Blanchett, for instance, in the same film — and stronger actors than Vincent Lindon as a struggling jobseeker in the tellyish French social drama La Loi du Marché? (Mara shared her gong with the worthier Emmanuelle Bercot in the French marital strife epic Mon Roi). Best Director was Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien for The Assassin. Best Screenwriter was Michel Franco for Chronic. Why exactly? Why they? Did the jury want to seem unfair to the more widely championed Moretti, Haynes, Jia Zhang-ke?
But let’s admit it: sneakingly we critics all like to leave Cannes huffing and puffing. Indignation makes us feel necessary; argument makes us feel alive. Even scorn can feel salutary, as an antidote to exhaustion. In the final days of the Cannes marathon the competition veered between the minor-key sublime and major-key ridiculous. In the second category we had Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, co-performing like one of those duets between lithe tenor and truck-sized soprano. It’s Isabelle who’s the sylph, while Gérard — let’s just say isn’t. They coo and combust, respectively, in a plot about a rendezvous with a dead gay son in Death Valley.
The final competition film was a poly-cultural Macbeth: Australia’s Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) directing, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard starring. The verse disappears at times into the mumblecore depths. You can’t just murmur away Shakespeare as Fassbender seems frequently to try. Cotillard plies the spoken-thoughts technique better. But it’s the imagery that commands the show: the sense of a real, tribal, primitive, weather-assailed Scotland, even if the details — tents rather than houses, giant yurts rather than castles — have been cobbled apocryphally together by a film-maker a planet’s width away.