As it does every year, the Cannes Film Festival developed gradual momentum over the course of the last two weeks. The main competition, though really only one part of the annual story, nabbed the spotlight with a culturally diverse selection deemed spotty before it even started. Once the program began, the question on the minds of many festival-goers increasingly became WWTBD: What Would Tim Burton Do?
At the end of the day, jury president Burton and his international jurors of mystery made several agreeable decisions. Juliette Binoche, a best actress winner for Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," maintains a balance of emotional delicacy and individualism in this talky romance, which IFC Films purchased for American distribution during the festival. Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry," a spare and skillfully told story of how melancholy drives the creative process, took Best Screenplay. A small movie by virtue of its topic alone, "Poetry" could use the boost a lot more than "Biutiful," the trite heartstrings-puller directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu that landed star Javier Bardem with one of the Best Actor awards (the other went to Elio Germano for "La Nostra Vita," which I did not see). Bardem is indeed the best thing about "Biutiful," so his win can be forgiven.
But the real triumph of the awards came from its weightiest bestowment, with the Palme d'Or going to Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul for his deliciously titled "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." Whether you call him "Joe," as he allows the Western media to dub him, or learn to pronounce the full deal, there's no denying the man's sheer originality as a lyricist working in the confines of the moving image form. While I found Weerasethakul's earlier movies intriguing for their structural experimentation, this latest accomplishment finally convinced me of Joe's mastery. A cryptic jungle story filled populated by monkey ghosts, talking catfish and naked monks, "Uncle Boonme" contains a big screen dream that borrows from myths both ancient and popular, but spins them into a unique identity that has no true precedent.
A staunchly independent filmmaker whose oeuvre stretches across a variety of media, Weerasethakul probably won't go mainstream in the wake of his award, but he's still bound to get some well-earned publicity mileage out of the additional exposure, as could the rest of the winners (the only bonafide star to win was "Biutiful" emoter Bardem). Few know the details of the process that led to the jury's decision, and Burton himself refused to elaborate on the qualities of "Uncle Boonmee" that led him and his colleagues to give it the top prize. At the opening press conference, however, the typically spacey Burton stumbled on a mission statement that fit the eventual outcome of his presidency. "The goal is to keep promoting every type of movie," he said, "whether it's a big effects movie or an intimate movie that affects you."
Naturally, the big effects movies will take care of themselves in a way that intimate ones lack the power to do. Then again, the idea of pushing "every type of movie" avoids the pressure of offering specifics, and really means nothing at all. But that's why it works: Burton's vague expression of intent provides a reminder that the festival doggedly avoids a precise raison d'etre. Cannes is not exclusively a showcase of the best in current cinema from a host of renowned auteurs, but also an insider club often at the mercy of political whims, self-interest and snobbery. What else is new?
"The Cannes Film Festival's mechanics are very simple," write Cari Beauchamp and Henri Béhar in Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival, "but the dynamics are not." That defines the difficulty of working through the program. As many claimed from the outset, the 2010 edition may have been a "weak" year compared to some of the others in its six decades of existence, but such an abrupt dismissal discounts the considerable triumphs of "Uncle Boonmee," "Poetry," and "Certified Copy," not to mention Mike Leigh's superbly moving character study "Another Year" and Olivier Assayas's sprawling and yet remarkably suspenseful five-and-a-half biopic, "Carlos," both of which went home empty-handed ("Carlos" was not in competition, but many pegged "Another Year" as a Palme-worthy early favorite).
The Cannes dynamic must also take into account the vibrancy of the environment where the movies unspool. Strolling down the Croisette one evening, I stopped to marvel at red carpet festivities outside the Palais des Festivals, wandered another hundred or so feet to catch a few minutes of "From Here to Eternity" screening on the beach, and looked to the heavens in awe as both spectacles were suddenly drowned out by hundreds of fireworks from the opening night party of the Cannes marketplace. A deafening roar caused thousands of pedestrians to pause in shock as light and color bathed the street, practically liberating the chaos within it. The movies are not the only competition for attention on the Croisette -- but, when the fireworks die down, they're the ones that matter the most.