For happy reviewers at Cannes, FAQs turned to QEDs. The most frequently asked question on the Cannes Croisette in the festival’s last days was: “Will Steven Spielberg let his jurors give the Palme d’Or to an intimate, graphic, at times eye-bogglingly explicit romance between two young women?” Most critics thought Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour the best film by far. Could a jury president and moviemaker whose most luminous fame still comes from the planet’s most huggable family film, ET, let these critics tell the world: “We told you so”? Could Team Spielberg give a French film swirling with love, sex, joy and teenage emotional growing pains (in close-ups where you feel every tear and every bead of sweat) the Palme d’Or’s frond embrace?
Short answer, yes. And the decision speaks triumphantly for a jury and a movie. The competition’s longest film, at 187 minutes, seemed to many the shortest. A love story adapted by a Tunis-born French director from a graphic novel leaves us agape with wonder, turning hours to minutes. Candid sex scenes are the smallest of the marvels. The greatest is the mastery with which Kechiche, who rehearsed for this film with the Venice prize-winning Couscous (2007), an earlier intimist epic, charts the small and large passions of his heroine. Newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos is astounding in her variety and intensity. She would surely have won Best Actress but for the near-inviolable tradition at Cannes of diversifying prizes.
Bérénice Bejo won instead for her acting in Asgar Farhadi’s The Past, switching from The Artist’s silent comedy moll to the articulate, moving heroine of an Iranian-French domestic drama. From the other end of the western world Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern won Best Actor for his role in Alexander Payne’s road-movie for wrinklies Nebraska. (It isn’t Sideways, but it has some of that Payne-work’s battered lovability.) Other prizes were blunderbussed freely around the globe. Best Director: Mexico’s Amat Escalante for the violent crime drama Heli. Best Screenwriter: China’s Jia Zhang-ke for the no less violent A Touch of Sin. Runner-up Special Jury Prize: to the enjoyable, not-violent-at-all comedy-elegy from America’s Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens were festival favourites until wiped off the bookies’ blackboard by Kechiche.
It was a good Cannes, not a great Cannes. Early on we feared a washout figurative and literal. Monsoon-like rain drove us into movies, from which the movies themselves drove us back into the monsoons. The fringe saved the festival, staying strong, if not exactly sunny, to the end. Best in the Un Certain Regard section were two powerful films of political indignation. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, winner of the event’s Best Feature prize, is a daringly primitivist chronicle/exposé of daily life under the Khmer Rouge, told through the deceptively naif medium of clay models. (But Gulliver’s Travels, in some eyes or lights, is a children’s story.) Winning the International Critics Prize in this sidebar was Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, the newest Iranian film to be smuggled into Cannes by an outlawed director. Forbidden to work and formerly imprisoned, Rasoulof shot in secret this slow-burn drama about government-initiated persecution and murder.
The unsensational depiction of horrific events is the reason for the film’s power. It’s a story of killings that leave no mark (a suffocation, a poisonous suppository); of conversations conducted in quiet fear or despair behind closed doors that are never fully closed; of innocents, even children, erased in the onward march of state brutalism. The film, Cannes director Thierry Frémaux warned audiences, “will not improve Rasoulof’s relationship with his government”. Understatement of the season. But if enough of us form a circle around movies such as this, governments will have to reach further and tussle longer and more openly to continue abusing their power over artists.