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Cannes 2017 Awards Analysis: ‘The Square’ Wins the Palme d’Or, But the Real Winners Are Hollywood Alternatives

From "The Square" to "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," this year's winners were anything but safe commercial bets.

cannes 2017 jury

The jury for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

AP/REX/Shutterstock

After 10 days in which a jury watched 19 competition films, the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival came down to seven prizes for six of them. It didn’t take long for the jury to make it clear that they couldn’t settle on just one of many options. Announcing a tie for the screenplay award, jury president Pedro Almodovar said, “We have our first surprise.”

But the truth was that, in a wildly unpredictable year, everything felt like a surprise. Over the course of the 2017 festival, no single feature emerged as a definite frontrunner for the Palme d’Or, and the outcome of this year’s ceremony reflects the sheer range of options — all of which stand out as explicit challenges to safe commercial bets.

It started with that screenplay award. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos awkwardly split the stage with “You Were Never Really Here” writer-director Lynne Ramsay. Both movies are innovative genre experiments from singular directors working with American actors eager to get outside their safety zones. One of those, “You Were Never Really Here” star Joaquin Phoenix, later took the stage to accept the best actor prize. The actor thanked Ted Hope and Amazon for supporting the project, providing another reminder of the way that the festival continues to reflect the changing landscape of the film industry.

Much about this year’s Cannes spoke to that change, from the contemptuous presence of Netflix with two competition titles (both of which won nothing) to the radical choice by this year’s programmers to showcase two television shows in the lineup (“Top of the Lake” and “Twin Peaks”) in addition to a virtual reality piece (“Carne y Arena”). But at the end of the day, it was the winners that spoke to the sheer range of cinema on display at this year’s festival, and the extent to which they provided a contrast to the limited arena of Hollywood.

That much was visible when Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of Jury Prize winner “Loveless,” looked over at the jury and singled out Will Smith: “He really does exist!” At times, it can seem as though the Cannes image of a prestigious arena for cinematic achievements exists in a fantasyland of its own creation, but it was moments like this one that fed the perception that these movies could, in fact, break out of their bubbles.

And perhaps they will. Almost every single Cannes winner has already secured U.S. distribution, including the surprise Palme d’Or winner “The Square,” from Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund. (Magnolia Pictures picked it up months before the festival.) The two-and-a-half hour art-world satire was filled with brilliant scenes in its cringe-comedy portrayal of a neurotic curator — but even if many critics felt that the full picture never came together, nobody could deny that it reflected an uncompromising vision. The same could be said for “Sacred Deer,” in which Lanthimos gets A-listers Nicole Kidman and Colin Ferrell to go to insane extremes in this unnerving tale of a family that falls apart for devious purposes.

"The Beguiled"

“The Beguiled”

Focus Features

Meanwhile, Sofia Coppola’s elegant feminist thriller “The Beguiled” — which refashions the ideas of the Civil War-set story through her own expressionistic filter — may turn out to be her most accessible, outwardly entertaining feature to date, even as it shows not an ounce of compromise. That’s a good enough reason for her to make history as only the second woman filmmaker to win best director at the festival.

The jury also gave a second-place prize to Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” a sprawling ensemble drama about the AIDS group ACT UP in Paris during the early ’90s. It was a reasonable choice for the movie, a fairly straightforward but well-acted period piece that should help catapult Campillo into an even greater arena of recognition as he joins the Cannes auteur club.

“BPM” (The Orchard) was one of two winners that struck a topical note in the outcome of this year’s competition. The other was Diane Kruger, who plays the wife of a man killed in a suicide bombing in Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade.” The movie marked her first German production and is a safe bet to further awards acclaim when the film is released.

“We don’t make films for awards, but this cost me a lot personally, so being here means more people will appreciate your work,” she said on the red carpet before the ceremony. In her acceptance speech, she added, “I can’t accept this award without thinking about anyone who has been affected by terrorism… please know that you have not been forgotten.”

Awards pundits had their money on Nicole Kidman, who had four roles in Cannes projects this year, to walk away with something. She didn’t land the actress prize, but the jury still found room for her in a special 70th anniversary award. It was almost as though nobody on this year’s jury wanted to snub the favorites of the festival, a stark contrast to last year, when few predicted that festival favorite “Toni Erdmann” would go home empty handed or that Ken Loach’s fairly routine socially conscious drama “I, Daniel Blake” would win big. This time around, virtually every well-received movie in competition got some form of acknowledgement.

“Well, it was tough,” Almodovar told one red-carpet reporter, lurking behind his ubiquitous shades. “We defended our positions very strongly. But it should be like that — completely democratic.” The prizes support that assertion: They represent a range of sensibilities, provocations, and themes, all of which will likely propel them to further recognition.

But this year’s festival may have been most impactful for a jury that included actors and directors who must now return to the industry aided by renewed perspectives on international cinema. “I’m so inspired,” juror Jessica Chastain said on her way to the ceremony. “I can’t wait to get back on the set.” But Will Smith may have said it best as he zipped into the Palais des Festival: “It was spectacular!”

Leave it to a movie star to sum up one of the most memorable Cannes editions in years, one in which old and new worlds collided as the future of the art world sat at the center of an unending debate. But at the end of the day, it was the movies that dominated every conversation, and conversations about their quality that prevailed. So it always goes at Cannes.

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