CANNES, France—The competition for the Palme d’Or is ongoing as I write, but the story of the 61st Cannes Film Festival is Steven Soderbergh’s two-part four-and-a-half-hour Che—an epic non-biopic that might well have been approved by Roberto Rossellini, envied by Francis Coppola, and even appreciated by its subject. (And the greatest disappointment? Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York—a maiden directorial voyage saved only by its actors from comparison to the Titanic’s.)
Gazing into the depths of Indiana Jones’s crystal skull, I predict that Sean Penn’s socially conscious jury will bestow its highest award on either Che or Matteo Garrone’s corrosive gangster exposé Gomorra, with significant props to the creators or casts of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, and Ari Folman’s feature animation Waltz With Bashir.
Which is to say—whadda I know? Thus, on behalf of my own one-man jury, with scant compensation for the winners and in scandalous unfairness to those few movies yet to screen, I bestow the following awards:
Le Gran Surprise du Festival to Che
Soderbergh’s $65 million rumination on Che Guevara’s activities, first during the miraculous Cuban Revolution and then his doomed Bolivian campaign a decade later, may be a great movie, but it is also something just as rare—a magnificently uncommercial folly. This skillfully didactic, nervily dialectical, feel-good, feel-bad combat film has less in common with The Motorcycle Diaries than with Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) or even a structuralist extravaganza like Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale. Che is a thing to be experienced. Soderbergh’s single-minded meditation on the practice of guerrilla warfare, the creation of militant superstardom, and the nature of objective camera work is at once visceral and intellectual, sumptuous and painful, boldly simplified and massively detailed. Despite this, as well as a commendable performance by Benicio Del Toro, Che may require its own miracle—or at least a few angels—to reach an audience in the form Soderbergh intended. While the first half could certainly be tightened, the movie demands to take its time and be taken in at a single sitting. One can only hope that the world beyond Cannes will get the opportunity to do so at something approaching the original running time.
The Cri de Coeur for the Best Film in Competition Least Likely to Win a Prize to Lucrecia Martel’s La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Woman Without a Head)
A woman perhaps runs over a dog on the highway and, possibly as a result, suffers her own injury. Dazed and forgetful, she wanders through her newly defamiliarized routine, engaging in all manner of impulsive behavior, always with a gracious smile and quizzical air. For her third feature, the Argentine director of La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl has created a comedy of disassociation. La Mujer is typically dense (and often very funny) and, no less than the protagonist, the viewer is compelled to live in the moment. Is that a problem? This hilariously titled movie’s successful use of a genuinely experimental film language was rewarded with walk-outs, boos, and disastrous reviews.
An Endless Red Carpet for the Most Heroic Star Performance in Art or Life to Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Last year at Cannes, Jolie lost her husband to Islamic terrorists; this year, suggesting a skull costumed for Halloween in a cloche hat and kissable wax red lips, she’s no less distracting as the suffering single mother in another true story. The main attraction in Eastwood’s two-fisted gothic snake-pit weepie, Jolie loses her child to knaves, psychos, and the entire state institutional apparatus. (Michelle Williams’s understated performance in Kelly Reichardt’s modest—but cosmic—Wendy and Lucy gave a far greater meaning to the loss of a dog.) Meanwhile, La Jolie put herself in contention for a future chevaliership making multiple tapis rouge appearances in an advanced state of pregnancy and confiding in the press that she would be delighted to have her child born in France.
The Special Prize of the Jerry (Lewis) to James Gray for Two Lovers
While certain French critics have anointed Gray the “Russian Scorsese,” Americans consider him, if at all, as a maladroit poseur. Switching from gangsta grit (We Own the Night) to romantic drama, Gray picked up additional hometown support while maintaining his unerring knack for negative credibility (tone-deaf repartee, botched authenticity, bungled local color). Two Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix in the Adam Sandler role of a bipolar Brighton Beach lad torn between a comely JAP (Vinessa Shaw), a crazy shiksa (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Isabella Rossellini as the world’s least likely (yet most annoying) Jewish mother. Gray clinched his prix in telling Libération that his preferred reading includes Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser—now, as a colleague observed, we know where he gets his dialogue.
A Magic Mirror to Synecdoche, New York
Collapsing in sodden self-reflexivity after a promising 40 minutes, Kaufman’s arch, interminable phantasmagoria—with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Job-like theater director—retroactively improved all but the most miserablist movies I saw at Cannes (and especially Philippe Garrel’s equally lugubrious Cannes debut Frontier of Dawn, a typically distended and glumly romantic analog to Two Lovers). For the secondary gain of rendering the festival’s minor aggravations pleasures by comparison: Merci.
And finally, as this year’s festival passes in history, a Golden Madeleine to Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux
The master of Chinese chinoiserie managed to return to Cannes for the fourth consecutive festival with a restored, rescored, and digitally recolored version of his 1994 exercise in action sword-play and wuxhia nostalgia. Insanely gorgeous, filled with poses and ecstasies, and always trembling on the brink of self-parody, this tale of medieval warriors and the women who can’t forget (or remember) them evokes the most extreme mannerism of the ’60s—Last Year at Marienbad, Flaming Creatures, Once Upon a Time in the West. Had it been selected by Cannes in 1994, could Ashes of Time have beaten another delirious, time-tripping genre film—Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? It’s highly unlikely (a poll published during the festival named Pulp Fiction the most popular Palme d’Oreate of all time), but it’s beautiful to think so. Memories should be made of this.