The Palme d’Or is the highest-regarded laurel of the film festival world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not arbitrary. Each year, the Cannes Film Festival selects a high-profile jury of filmmakers and actors to watch the competition movies and select one title for the top prize. While anything can happen over the course of the jury deliberation process, anyone following the progress of the festival each year inevitably falls into a guessing game.
This year, with New Zealand director Jane Campion serving as president, many pundits jumped on the possibility that the only women filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or in the festival’s history might bestow the honor on one of the two women directors in competition. However, now that Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders” and Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” have screened to largely mixed responses, that superficial assumption has receded into the background as a clearer set of frontrunners have come into view during the festival’s final days.
Of course, there’s no exact science for the outcome, which will be announced during Saturday evening’s awards ceremony. The only sure thing is the movie that takes home the top prize automatically receives a major boost. So, here are six reasonable possibilities ahead of Saturday’s event. Place your bets and caveat emptor.
Canadian director Xavier Dolan is only 25 and already completed five distinctive features; among them, many Cannes audiences agree that this two-hour plus portrait of a troubled single mother and her teen son’s battles with rage problems and ADHD stands out as his best. While not a groundbreaking narrative achievement, Dolan’s tightly wound story capitalizes on its intense performances with a speedy, engaging storytelling technique that echoes its characters’ undulating moods. Despite its darker ingredients, “Mommy” is essentially the feel-good movie of this year’s competition, an energetic crowd-pleaser with plenty of rich emotions to spare. While many people may think that Dolan’s age limits his chances, Campion herself has stated an interest in acknowledging young, promising talent, and “Mommy” reflects just that even as it shows the markings of a mature voice. If jurors decide that Dolan’s too young for the top prize, they may still reward Anne Dorval for her moving turn as the mother of the title. Read our review here.
Andrey Zvyagintsev has found acclaim at Cannes in the past with his keen parables of Russian society, most recently “Elena,” which played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. But he has never premiered a movie that has received the degree of acclaim heaped on his epic “Leviathan,” an alternately brooding and darkly humorous tale of a small-town family whose life falls apart when the corrupt mayor threatens to take their land. Novelistic in its heft and profoundly philosophical, “Leviathan” is a serious feat for anyone seeking intelligent, challenging ingredients in narrative cinema. However, its grim atmosphere and slow-burn approach may divide the jury, in which case it could wind up with a screenplay honor. Read our review here.
If Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne win the Palme, it will mark the first time in the history of the festival that any filmmaker has taken home the top prize more than twice (they previously won for “The Child” and “Rosetta”). But if it could happen to anyone, it’s these guys. The masters of social-realist dramas work their magic once again with this powerfully involving tale in which Marion Cotillard plays a woman desperately attempting to save her job over the course of a long weekend. Cotillard’s extraordinary performance may land her an acting prize, but the movie is so tightly conceived that it has generated one of the most overwhelmingly positive responses during the festival. If the jury decides that they just want to award a great movie they can all agree on, “Two Days, One Night” looks like the safest bet. Read our review here.
Another Cannes regular, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has already won other prizes for his pensive features, which include the cryptic procedural “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and the relationship drama “Climates,” but the three-hour-plus “Winter Sleep” is both his longest and most sophisticated achievement, the Shakespearan tale of a disgruntled landowner contemplating his affluent lifestyle. Operating at the height of his patient approach to storytelling, Ceylan proves he’s a master at constructing immersive environments and nuanced characters better than virtually any other filmmaker working today. But if some jurors find the movie’s distended structure an unnecessary challenge, “Winter Sleep” might have a hard time beating out some of the leaner entries. In that situation, it remains a contender in the performance and screenplay categories. Read our review here.
One of the best-known filmmakers in the history of the medium, Jean-Luc Godard continues to push against the boundaries of cinema and create provocative experiments with form. His latest essay-film is a messy screed against the modern world seen through the eyes of a disapproving pooch. Despite its confounding nature, the movie satisfied expectations of the many Godard fans in attendance for its premiere—and Campion has long professed her appreciation for the director’s work. At 83, Godard has never won the Palme, and it’s not unthinkable to consider that the jury may reach the conclusion that his time has come. Choosing the Godard film for the Palme would send the message that non-commercial cinema can still receive widespread attention. Then again, this would be one big winner very unlikely to find any appreciative audiences post-Cannes as enthusiastic as the crowds that eagerly greeted it this past week. The jury could avoid a controversial decision by acknowledging Godard with another award, such as the Prix du Jury or a lifetime achievement nod. Read our review here.
“Clouds of Sils Marie”
Cannes attendees often consider the final slot in the schedule of the competition films to be a bad sign, but French director Olivier Assayas’ tender and insightful look at the experiences of an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) and her plucky assistant (Kristen Stewart) proved an exception to the rule. Assayas is another Cannes regular (he even served on the jury three years ago) and most of the world regards him as one of France’s greatest living filmmakers. “Clouds of Sils Marie” is such a talky, low-key endeavor that its Palme odds might seem especially low. However, fans of the production have celebrated the consistency of its mood as it takes a rare intellectual scalpel to the barriers and insanities of fame in the movie business. Beautifully shot and performed, “Clouds of Sils Marie” also carries a valuable perspective on the perils facing the art form that Cannes has been designed to sustain. Its victory could lead to a constructive dialogue about keeping standards alive. However, the jury could avoid a potentially divisive choice by awarding the movie for its outstanding performances or screenplay instead. Read our review here.