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CANNES, France—The jury has their awards, and I have mine. Sometimes they even coincide.
Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul's modest Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—the acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naïve magic realism—towered over a shockingly mediocre competition. (Distant runners-up were Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's overwritten but screenplay-winning Poetry.) Set, like many of Weerasethakul's movies, mainly in the jungles of northeast Thailand and materializing late in the festival as a kind of soothing cinematic balm, Uncle Boonmee is a movie in which conversing with spirits and watching TV have much the same valence. The protagonist is dying of kidney failure; the ghost of his first wife and a red-eyed, human-size monkey, who is the manifestation of his long-lost son, arrive to guide him toward death, with several delightfully inexplicable digressions into past (and possibly future) incarnations.
Let the sound of one palm clapping herald the best movies not in competition: Romanian director Cristi Puiu's ambitious murder mystery Aurora (inexplicably consigned to the "Un Certain Regard" section); his countryman Radu Muntean's sensationally acted adultery drama Tuesday, After Christmas (also in the "Regard"); Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte, a wordless, but hardly silent, evocation of the Great Chain of Being (men, goats, trees) as manifest in rural Calabria, that was the shining light of the Directors' Fortnight; and mainly Olivier Assayas's five-and-a-half-hour docudrama Carlos, evidently removed from the competition because someone complained that it was produced for TV. Big mistake.
Carlos is more fun than Steven Soderbergh's Che—to which it has been routinely compared with regard to length, historical period, and revolutionary protagonist (in this case, the eponymous Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal)—in part because it is considerably less conceptually rigorous. Its controlled, rock-fueled tumult evokes Assayas's thrillers like demonlover and Boarding Gate. French critics, in particular, adored Carlos. Had it remained in the competition, it might well have won the Palme; indeed, the extended account of Carlos's most elaborate operation, holding hostage a full conference of OPEC oil ministers, would make a terrific movie in its own right.
Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez is convincingly authoritative as the charismatic Carlos—putting a succession of pretty young actresses under "revolutionary discipline"—and Stalin, something like the Carlos of the Caucasus in his youth, makes an appearance in Nikita Mikhalkov's (not even enjoyably) egregious World War II epic The Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2. But the award for Best (Historical) Actor belongs to a dead Romanian dictator. A three-hour, unexplicated assemblage of official newsreels and occasional home movies, Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu earns its title by presenting Ceausescu's image as he wanted to show himself, not only in Romania but on the world stage, cavorting with leaders ranging from Charles De Gaulle to Richard Nixon to Kim Jong-il. This film is a monument to delusion, a celluloid Potemkin Village, and a grotesque social psychodrama with mass deception and megalomania pushed past the absurd.
Ceausescu was the festival's undisputed Ubu Roi, but I have to declare a tie for King of Cannes. Jean-Luc Godard's last-minute decision to snub the festival (out of solidarity with Greece!) made his presence all the more tangible, especially as his dense, often visually ravishing, but only partially successful essay Film Socialisme ends with the words "NO COMMENT." (Before the fest, Godard had condensed his movie into a four-and-a-half-minute YouTube preview.) On the other hand, the sight of 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira vigorously strolling La Croisette with his ninetysomething missus was nearly as impressive as The Strange Case of Angelica, a serenely playful statement on mortality by a director who necessarily makes every film as if it were his last.
Cannes is more often about dashing expectations than exceeding them. Better-than-expected movies eligible for the La Quelle Sur-Prix include Mathieu Amalric's likeably rowdy, backstage homage to striptease and pulchritude, Tournée (surprise winner of the international press's FIPRESCI prize as well as a jury award for best direction) and, to a lesser degree, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's highly crafted, overbearingly solemn rethinking of the Frankenstein story Tender Son. (By contrast, Doug Liman's Fair Game and Ken Loach's Route Irish fell below even my lowest expectations.) The undisputed Quelle Sur-Prix winner, however, was Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami's first venture into European art cinema, shot in Tuscany with an international cast—basically of two. A tricky acting exercise that would have been a pure hell of sodden duplicity in the hands of David Mamet, Certified Copy proved remarkably adroit in developing a rumination on authenticity using non-actor William Shimell (an opera singer by trade) as a foil for festival diva Juliette Binoche, who hilariously told interviewers that, as directed by Kiarostami, she wasn't actually acting but only being herself.
As welcome as those movies that exceed expectations are those that confound them. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is Cannes' reigning baffler, Aurora and Le quattro volte are full of mysteries, and South Korean prankster Im Sangsoo sowed confusion with The Housemaid, remaking a ferociously tawdry and moralistic local classic as a parodic French art thriller. But this year's Grand Whatzit belongs to American indie Lodge Kerrigan for his precisely opaque Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs). As inexplicable as it is enjoyable, Rebecca H. has all the earmarks of a failed project mash-up reclamation job, and shares several interests with Certified Copy—an acting exercise that climaxes with an extended real-or-Memorex simulation of Grace Slick lip-synching barely audible words during Jefferson Airplane's Monterey Pop rendition of "Today" (To be any more than all I am would be a lie . . . ).