As juror László Nemes (“Son of Saul”) said at the start of the Cannes Film Festival, juries are by their nature random. One thing you can count on is that the actors on the jury will shift the conversation. From the start, this year’s actors said they were looking for emotion. And that’s what the two top winners boast in abundance. “It was a collective decision,” said Miller of his “nine-headed beast,” describing the awards process as like creating a painting. “We looked at every variable, it’s not like ticking off a vote for the Oscars…we were looking at the awards like a totality. It took so much time, so much rigor, it was exhausting, emotionally, as everyone was talking so passionately.”
Thanks to jury chief Miller, it was Mel Gibson (whose “Blood Father” played well as a Cannes midnight movie) who presented the Palme d’Or to 79-year-old British director Ken Loach, winning for the second time (2006’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”); he’s won many other prizes over 18 films selected for Cannes. By far the most emotional movie of the festival, “I, Daniel Blake” (Sundance Selects) brought audiences to wrenching tears, including this writer. Based on research into England’s public welfare crisis, the film is a fictionalized story set in Newcastle about a joiner (Dave Johns) who can’t seem to convince the state to give him the disability he needs after a heart condition makes it impossible for him to work.
“The festival is very important for the future of cinema,” said Loach. “When there is despair, the people from the far right take advantage. We must say that another world is possible and necessary.”
Many critics did not respond to Loach’s overtly political film because they didn’t think he was doing anything different from what he had done before. But they really didn’t like Xavier Dolan’s very theatrical “It’s Only the End of the World,” which won the consolation prize, the Grand Prix, which means that the jury responded very differently to this heartfelt adaptation of a play about a dysfunctional family, who scream in French in extreme closeup. (Dolan won the jury prize in 2014 for “Mommy.”)
“Thank you for feeling the emotions of the film,” said Dolan (who attacked the critical reaction to his film) in a speech during which he cried, lips trembling, and chewed on his hands. Maybe it will now be picked up for the U.S., although it won’t be a crowdpleaser.
Co-winner of the director prize, Romanian Cristian Mungiu (“Graduation”), had also won the Palme d’Or, for 2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” and his actresses shared the Actress prize for “Beyond the Hills.” Mungiu’s “Graduation” (Sundance Selects) sends a controlling father (Adrian Titieni) into a tailspin when his long-held post-graduation plans for his daughter (Maria Dragus) go terribly awry. Mungiu points out each individual’s role in doing the right thing when corruption and compromise often rule the day.
Co-winner Olivier Assayas, on the other hand, accepted his first Cannes award for “Personal Shopper” (IFC Films), his second English-language film starring Kristen Stewart (Cesar winner for “Clouds of Sils Maria”), whose character acquires fashionable clothes for a rich client. She tries to use her skills as a medium to communicate with her twin brother, who has recently died, when mysterious texts suddenly appear on her iPhone. It was a great Cannes for Stewart, who was well-received in Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” (Amazon) as well, and for IFC/Sundance Selects, which is releasing “I, Daniel Blake,” “Graduation” and “Personal Shopper.”
Critics adored the film, which was shaped by the American midwestern landscape as well as the editing room. The film was vastly different from its original script and unlike anything else at Cannes this year. “Five hours ago I was sitting in my neighbor’s garden drinking tea,” Arnold said in her acceptance speech, thanking her cast and crew for the “team effort” on their “great adventure.”
Meanwhile, critics’ fave and the winner by a mile of the Screen International Critics Poll (see below), German director Maren Ade’s exquisite father-daughter comedy “Toni Erdmann” (Sony Pictures Classics), came home empty-handed. At the jury press conference jury chief Miller cited a “passionate” and long jury deliberation (which Mikkelsen described as “difficult”) on 21 films, directors, writers and many more actors as well as arcane jury rules that demand that the top three winners cannot win a second prize. Miller and Mads Mikkelsen both stated that they judged the films on their excellence, not on the sex of who directed them. “Each film was judged on its merits,” said Miller. “Filmmaking is filmmaking. It did not come up, we were looking at other issues.”
The first-time director prize went to “Divines,” a gangster thriller and female buddy movie directed by Houda Benyamina (Director’s Fortnight).
The jury defended the choice of Best Actress Jaclyn Jose for “Ma’ Rosa,” from Philippine director Brillante Mendoza, which some critics had suggested was a supporting role in a sprawling ensemble. “The critics were wrong,” said Donald Sutherland. “It’s a big-time leading role.”
“She’s the film,” said Arnaud Desplechin. “She broke my heart.”
The jury admitted that there were many strong actress contenders including “I, Daniel Blake”‘s Hayley Squires and Romanian actress Maria Dragus (“Graduation”), but they couldn’t award more than one prize for winners of the top three awards.
Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” (Amazon/Cohen Media) was another surprise winner, taking home two prizes, for Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Shahab Hosseini plays an actor who is in the midst of moving apartments and starring in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” when his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) is assaulted in the shower of their new domicile by a man who assumes that she is the former tenant, a prostitute. When the door buzzes, the wife thinks she is letting in her husband, but winds up in the hospital with more than wounds to her head and psyche — her husband is hellbent on revenge.
Among those who did not need to attend the closing ceremony were Isabelle Huppert, who earned raves for Paul Verhoeven’s provocative thriller “Elle” (Sony Pictures Classics), in which she plays a videogame entrepreneur who refuses to allow her violent rape in her own home to ruin her life. Verhoeven’s first French-language film is likely to play better in North America.
Also left out of the awards were “Paterson” (Amazon), American auteur Jim Jarmusch’s spare and austere portrait of a bus driver poet (Adam Driver) and his wife and muse (Golshifteh Farahani), as well as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl” (Sundance Selects), starring Adèle Haenel as an empathetic doctor who ignores a late-hour doorbell at her private practice and finds out that the young woman was murdered nearby. She embarks on a mission to identify the girl and inform her family of her death. Park Chan-Wook’s gorgeously wrought erotic drama “The Handmaiden” (Amazon) starring Kim Min-hee and newcomer Kim Tae-ri as secret lesbian lovers was also overlooked.
At the “Neon Demon” party, when I asked Cannes director Thierry Fremaux why so many movies wound up in Competition that the critics did not like, he said that the festival was not set up for the critics, although they clearly play an important role. He said that how movies played for audiences was important too. Clearly that included the Cannes jury.