Cannes 2009, Final Stretch: Time to Handicap the Competition!

Our longtime film critic J. Hoberman is filing regular dispatches from this year's Cannes. The Festival is nearly over, but the question still remains: who will win the Palme?

Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces: Is this Pedro Almodovar's year?
Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces: Is this Pedro Almodovar's year?

The marche has closed up shop, the trades have published their last daily issues, the fake snow beneath the palms on the Carlton's front lawn to promote Disney's forthcoming A Christmas Carol is ready to be vacuumed, and, yet to unveil a truly great or almost great movie, the competition heads into the final stretch.

With only a handful of contenders left to screen, the competition has a clear critical favorite and a sentimental choice-both French. Jacques Audiard's tough, straightforward prison drama A Prophet sits atop Screen Daily's "jury" of nine international critics and is even more highly regarded by the 15 French journalists polled in Le Film Français.

Many critics were left misty-eyed by Alain Resnais's archly antic Wild Grass-the 87-year-old filmmaker's first Cannes appearance in decades and likely his last. Marginally better (or at least spacier) than the last half dozen fluff-outs Resnais has produced for his reliably irritating muse Sabine Azema, Wild Grass seems certain to win something, if only a lifetime achievement award. It would, however, be remarkably bad form if either movie was given the Palme d'Or-not after a French film won last year and not with a French artist, Isabelle Huppert, presiding over the jury.

On the other hand, neither Michael Haneke nor Pedro Almodóvar, hardy Croisette perennials both, has ever won the Palme. Haneke's immaculately creepy period piece The White Ribbon (pre World War I German town terrorized by the enigma of narrative) is considerably more substantial than Almodóvar's entertaining but glib Broken Embraces (a cinephilic celebration of Penelope Cruz), but it may be that this year the stars are aligned for Almodóvar. Though Huppert did give one of her most astounding performances in Haneke's The Piano Teacher, gender solidarity on the jury might favor Almodóvar, who enjoys a reputation as the world's most generous and affectionate director of actresses. (This year's eight-person jury is unique for including four actresses-Asia Argento, Robin Wright Penn, Shu Qi, and Sharmila Tagore-serving under a fifth.)

And let us not forget Jane Campion, the only woman to ever win a Palme d'Or, represented by the well-wrought, critically acclaimed, period romance Bright Star. And then there's the dark horse Vincere, Marco Bellocchio's self-consciously operatic critique of Italian fascism-a vehicle for Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the wronged other woman in Mussolini's life.

Divo versus diva: I'm most looking forward to the award for best actress. Vincere provides a juicy role but character is not identical with performance. So, will Charlotte Gainsbourg be shunned or feted for her courageously uninhibited acting in the competition's most playfully misogynist movie, Lars von Trier's Antichrist? See you with all the results on Tuesday.

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