The Cannes Film Festival concluded Sunday night with the Palme d’Or awarded to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake — a terrific film that nevertheless made for an odd choice. In a year with such a strong competition lineup, the idea of the Palme going to Loach, a prior winner (he took the same award a decade ago, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and his work has won numerous other major prizes in Competition over the years), seems curiously uninspired and safe. But that certainly made more sense than the Grand Jury Prize — effectively the festival’s second-place award, often given to the gems that Juries aren’t able to reach consensus on — to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, a much-reviled family drama that even the director’s most ardent fans wouldn’t defend.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the winners, at least for critics, was the complete absence of many of the festival’s most talked-about and seemingly beloved titles: Nothing went to Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s rapturously received, narratively bold three-hour father-daughter comedy-drama. Nothing to Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece about the quiet life of an unknown poet, a film for which nobody seemed to have anything but effusive praise. Nothing to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s gloriously stylized and entertaining Korean sex-and-revenge epic. Nothing to Aquarius’s Sonia Braga or Elle’s Isabelle Huppert, two actresses giving what many have deemed the performances of their careers. That said, a couple of interestingly divisive titles snuck away with prizes: Andrea Arnold’s much-discussed musical road movie, American Honey, did win a Jury Prize, and Olivier Assayas’s bizarre Kristen Stewart–starring comedy-thriller-drama, Personal Shopper, tied for Best Director with Cristian Mungiu’s brilliant Graduation.
Cannes Juries — composed of a diverse international roster of actors, directors, and producers — can be strange beasts. Sometimes they reflect critical consensus; sometimes they seem to thumb their nose at it. The reality is probably more mundane: Filmmakers and critics live in different bubbles, a situation even more pronounced at film festivals. It’s easy to see how a group of directors and actors might be impressed by the recently unretired 79-year-old Loach delivering a genuinely powerful and occasionally quite funny kitchen-sink drama about the chaos of Britain’s welfare system.
Jury President George Miller, a veteran of two prior Cannes juries, said that their deliberations were thorough and passionate; his fellow jurors seemed to agree at the post-awards press conference, stating that “Nothing was left unsaid” and insisting that the decision process was unusually collaborative. (There have been unconfirmed reports in the past of jury presidents steamrolling certain titles through.) Rumor had it that Miller was no fan of Toni Erdmann; another suggested key Jury members were predisposed against Paterson. Such hearsay always filters out, as do other usually unfounded mutterings about some members preventing certain films from winning: Last year, juror Xavier Dolan was rumored to have blocked Todd Haynes’s critics’ darling Carol from winning a major award. But, again, the reality may be more humdrum than that; presumably, Dolan wasn’t also responsible for Carol getting shut out of a Best Picture Oscar nomination earlier this year, an omission that also surprised many writers (including me). Shocker: Critics, filmmakers, and audiences don’t always agree on what’s the best movie out there.
One well-received title that did win two awards Sunday night was Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, taking Best Actor (for Shahab Hosseini) and Best Screenplay. Another of Farhadi’s visceral dramas of wounded masculinity, it centers on a theater actor and director who takes action when his wife is assaulted in their new apartment. It’s tough to do justice to my complicated feelings about this one without giving away several climactic reveals, so I will simply note here that it’s an expertly made, suspenseful film with a noxious political core; its inciting incident seems to reaffirm conservative Islam’s worst ideas about uncovered and “loose” women. It’s not that I think Farhadi shares such beliefs, but he uses them as poetically vague elements in an effort to manhandle a very specific (and occasionally contrived) plot into place, like a fable that’s suddenly been brought up for interrogation. Still, the director’s ability to stage a scene, to build the tensions between his characters until you’re bursting with anticipation, remains so potent that I admired the immensity of his skill even as I called bullshit on much of what actually happened onscreen. Nevertheless, The Salesman, a late addition to the fest lineup, was also clearly in rough-cut stage as it screened, with dodgy edits and a slapped-on end credits sequence. I am eager to see it in its final form.
Another title that screened late was Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, the closing-night film of Director’s Fortnight. Full disclosure: I’m friends with its screenwriter. But I was genuinely impressed with this relentlessly twisted, violent, funny Edward Bunker adaptation about a trio of hapless ex-cons whose attempt at a kidnapping job goes horribly awry very quickly. As the unhinged, doped-up loose cannon of the group, Willem Dafoe is terrifyingly hilarious. And Nicolas Cage, playing the lead hood, finally gets a chance to mix his still-considerable charisma with menace, delivering a performance where his energetic, occasionally goofy choices for once actually make sense; he plays one scene with a fake Humphrey Bogart accent, and the sequence starts off deeply unnerving but winds up truly touching. Meanwhile, Schrader dares much visual and sonic experimentation, playing each scene like a jazz riff, often in direct contrast to the nature of the ghastly events onscreen. The effect is a film overwhelmed by the possibilities of cinema, in the same way its ex-con characters are overwhelmed by the new world surrounding them. The movie’s quest for a style to call its own is moving; it’s the best thing Schrader’s done in decades.
Speaking of old masters making triumphant returns: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle screened on the final day of Competition, and its enthusiastic reception led to many of my colleagues actually pegging it as a late-breaking Palme contender and suggesting that star Huppert might make an Oscar run. But the response here also seemed to confirm that divide between critics and the rest of the world. The praise for Verhoeven’s rape-revenge comedy-thriller, which I didn’t get to see, was near-universal, but many felt that it would prove controversial and divisive, given its subject and certain choices Huppert’s character makes. The press came out of the screenings ready for a fight, but the controversy never materialized. Nor, for that matter, did an award. We’ll see — as we will with all these movies — when the film finally meets its public.