Time for a little mid-Cannes Palme check-up. Out of a conservative eighteen films playing in competition, there’s only four left to go. In the madness of press lines, while fighting sleepless nights and ignoring growling stomachs, we have managed to see and review all fourteen films and our grades have covered all ranges; from near-failures (“The Captive,” “The Search”) to total winners (“Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner”) But that’s just us. Daily magazines at Cannes like Screen International love to pool critics’ opinion into a consensus and analyze who’s got the edge for the Palme. So let’s take a closer look at what’s favored, and what we thought of each one (with a little special attention given to a particular Turkish talkie.)
“Mr. Turner” was the one that began it all, and like most of the critics out there, we think it ranks among Mike Leigh’s greatest work (read our review), showing that the man knows how to handle the pesky biopic genre with class. It’s no surprise, then, that it still ranges high on the possibility list even though it was the first out of the gate. Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh are also tipped for likely Best Actor and Best Director prizes. And if there was a category for Cinematography, it would be “Mr. Turner” fair and square as it’s the best we’ve seen come out of the French Riviera yet. Hot on its heels, is the lengthiest and one of the most predicted titles before festival even began, the epic “Winter Sleep” from Cannes regular Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Our review didn’t throw much love its way, but we’ll get back to this one in just a moment.
Following right behind these two heavyweights is Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders,” fair to be named as the most pleasant surprise of the Competition so far. Rohrwacher expressed her surprise when she was announced in Competition, saying she expected Un Certain Regard or Directors’ Fortnight. Fast-forward a few weeks later and not only is she premiering in Competition, but she gets an enthusiastic standing ovation and has critics circling it as most likely Palme winner. For someone who mostly had question marks next to her title, that’s as good as it gets at this stage in the game. Personally, we found it a little too Sundance-y for our tastes, but certainly appreciate its audacious and personal look at family life (read our take on it here). In something of a surprise, David Cronenberg’s “Maps To The Stars” isn’t far behind as it too received a great welcome and added more coal to the heated predictions (our review). Cronenberg is rumored for possible Best Director as well. Finally, the latest Dardenne film floored audiences and had cranky journalists applauding at the crack of dawn screening. Count us among the ones who loved it because “Two Days, One Night” is a momentous picture, you can read our review for that here, and it would be a genuine shock if the Best Actress award evades Marion Cotillard for a third time.
If we put our trust in the critics,” Mr. Turner” and “Winter Sleep” lead the way with, believe it or not, “Maps To The Stars” not far behind. However, the love for “The Wonders” may not be as widespread but boy is it loud. But, let’s rewind the tape and go back to Winter Sleep for a minute. Our Playlist review (and a few others out there) thought it had a lot of great ideas that didn’t quite come together, and went on for too long. But the view out there is decidedly mixed and some think it’s a very strong viable Palme d’Or contender. In fact, this writer very much thinks so and would like to take a bit of time to talk about why I think it should have its nose in the front.
Experiences, at their core definition, are more rare than modern film criticism suggests. The word is used much too often and, to give you a perfect example, let’s take the obvious one. Last year’s “Gravity” is generally hailed as a cinematic experience because of its stunning and immersive technical aspect, and there’s no doubting this (even without the 3D, it would pull us in.) But then someone says something. The screenplay barely gets a mention in the praise because it’s contrived and, in certain moments, cringe-ingly unrealistic. There are those who don’t need a good screenplay to have an experience in the theater, but then it’s fair to say the same viewers don’t need a film’s essential ingredient to get fully lost inside the film’s world. Call me gullible, but for this reviewer the screenplay is essential and “Winter Sleep” and its screenplay provides exactly that portal into the intimate setting of Aydin’s hotel in Anatolia. The running time becomes relative and three hours plus ends up breezing past, barely feeling like an hour.
If the language pulls you in, like Ceylan’s did with this reviewer, the wealth of knowledge is priceless. The Dardenne brothers are often cited as being the masters of this craft of organic language, but though all of us are more readily in agreement with “Two Days One Night,” my grade would be notched down to a B+ from an A because of the fabrication observed, and forgiven, by the official review. It’s an incredibly hard feat to pull off, the natural-sounding screenplay, but once it is you’re talking Palme d’Or potential because the essence found in the most celebrated Palme D’Or winners (take a look at our list of 15 greatest ones here) is preserved; experience with characters who don’t feel like characters but flesh and blood people, in a movie that doesn’t feel like a movie but deeply complicated life itself. And here’s where Ceylan’s film goes from “potential” to “deserving” for me; not only does it achieve this artful reflection of life through intoxicating conversations which intricately reveal all facets of human nature, but the artistry of cinema is celebrated as well. In this way, the horse, the theatrical masks, the money, Nihal’s charity, the teacher Levent, and the winter, among all other details, all retain a degree of symbolism and add further food for thought. All other essentials follow the screenplay; the effortless acting, the gorgeous cinematography, the controlled camera, and come together to form one remarkable cinematic experience. This way, Ceylan takes full advantage of cinema’s two greatest tricks: making you escape out of your world and into the film, and having the movie reflect back onto your own life and surroundings. Sounds like a just Palme d’Or frontrunner to me. Digression over.
Let’s end on this recap on a few contenders that stand little to no chance in hell. Damian Szifron’s wickedly fun “Wild Tales” (our review) was also one of the biggest question marks in the selection, and it’s safe to say that it swept a lot of critics off their feet (but not ours so much, though we did enjoy it). After a few days passed however, it became clear that while “Wild Tales” is a fun ride its chances of winning the Palme are slim to none. We absolutely loved Bennett Miller’s much-anticipated “Foxcatcher,” which met our lofty expectations and then some (our review is here) but it feels more like the film’s purpose is to mainly spark up Oscar buzz than win the Palme d’Or. Our review for Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” called it an “unruly affair” but will most likely be remembered as a misfire regardless of how appropriate its timing for us was, and we are also very partial toward Naomi Kawase’s ethereal “Still The Water” (our review), but its chances are hindered by the slightly more effective competitors. And finally, unless Cannes wants a scandal on their hands, the only thing that feels sure at this point is that Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive” is not winning anything (read our review to find out why). Fresh out of the gates is also our review for Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” follow-up, “The Search” and we’d think it would be just as scandalous if it won, but the chances for that don’t exist in an otherwise rich competition.
With four left to go, anticipation is high for Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” and we’re looking forward to see what Olivier Assayas, Xavier Dolan, and especially Jean-Luc Godard (going 3D for most likely his last film) have in store. When all’s said and done, it’s clear that this was another great year for Cannes. The proof is in the bags under our bloodshot eyes.