Bleak Themes And Dark Times Triumph In The Films That Won Big At The Cannes Film Festival This Year As Americans Are Shut Out

Pete Hammond

The Feature Film Jury of the main competition for the 72nd Cannes International Film Festival has spoken, and in judging the 21 entries eligible for the Palme d’Or and other prizes, they have gone dark, very very dark. 

But that isn’t atypical of past Cannes juries, who are notoriously unpredictable (which is why I don’t commit the fools errand of trying to predict them), and often influenced by the weight of the world around them. The direction President Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s jury would take is sort of written in stone, as I pointed out in reporting his remarks to the audience at the opening night ceremony.

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“We shall do our best to see what resonates with us, disturbs us, and makes us feel ill at ease,” he said, making it sound like they are not expecting to have much fun in the cinema the next 12 days. “We will do our utmost to find the jewel that resonates for us. But the only true judge of a film is time,” the multiple Oscar winner added.

With the bleak subject matter of big winners, Parasite, Atlantique, Young Ahmed, Les Miserables, and Bacurau, to name five, the position of the oppressed and ignored in this world was a key theme, at least as I interpret it having seen all these winners.  Those that thought perhaps Spain’s Pedro Almodovar might finally take the Palme ‘Or on a sixth try for a deeply personal and somewhat autobiographical look at the life and loves of a director in Pain And Glory (Antonio Banderas won a well-deserved Best Actor prize for it instead) , or perhaps past Palme d’Or winner Quentin Tarantino for his brilliant, most personal, and even wistful Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, set in the Los Angeles of 1969 with the Manson murders an underlying element, the answer from Inarritu and his fellow jurors was to look instead to films that were more directly pertinent to issues in a world they think is crumbling.

It is ironic that the hottest ticket a nd most awaited film of the festival, Tarantino’s, premiered Tuesday night and sucked all the air out of the room for the 10PM second screening of the night, South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho’s equally brilliant Parasite.

Both got similar ovations after their screenings, but Parasite flew more under the media radar, and ended up with South Korea’s first Palme d’Or anyway. It is well-deserved, though, and tells the story of the class divide in that country in a unique, almost richly funny, and then terrifying way.  It entertains in its first two thirds in such a manner that I thought it was ripe for an American remake, but then punches you in the gut with its very local and devastating final third in a movie that it is hard to describe.

The switch in tone is striking and effective in ways you won’t soon forget.  The haves and the have nots theme also was highlighted in different ways in Mati Diop’s Grand Prize winner (second place), Atlantique, the first film ever in competition from a female African filmmaker; tied Jury Prize winners  Les Miserables, which is newcomer Ladj Ly’s look at a corrupt Paris Street Crimes Unit (SCU) patrolling the city’s underserved populace; Brazil’s Bacurau, an ultra-violent look at an assault on a poor village by outsiders who love to kill; and the seemingly annual award to Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers, this time as Best Director for Young Ahmed, a studied look at the radicalization of a Muslim kid.

The latter was too dour to knock my socks off, and as a piece of direction was far outdone by many of the other films. Sorry, Dardennes. It is interesting to note that despite criticism of too few women being included in the competition, three of the four films directed by women this year took a prize, including Diop, Screenplay winner Celine Sciamma for Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and Best Actress winner Emily Beecham in Jessica Hausner’s underwhelming sci-fi Little Joe. 

Past two time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach could easily have fit in with the darker times awarded by this jury with his latest look at how screwed the average working guy is in Sorry I Missed You. But he didn’t make the cut, even though, in my opinion, it was one of the best films at this year’s Cannes, and one of the most powerful in its message and the way it was presented.

Another past Palme d’Or winner, Terrence Malick, saw his three hour A Hidden Life also completely shut out, even though Fox Searchlight paid the festival’s top price for an acquisition (so far), pinning Oscar hopes on it. But if this slow-burning Malick can’t register in Cannes, don’t count on the Academy following suit.

Actually all the American entries were completely shut out, but the biggest headline is seeing Tarantino, a Cannes favorite, ending up with nothing. It won’t matter for his film, though, which I expect to be very big when it opens July 26, and definitely  will be a force come Oscar season. A win in Cannes is always nice, but, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, it rarely means much for Oscar. No Palme d’Or winner has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar since they started giving the prize with Marty in 1955.

Take heart, Quentin. As Inarritu said, “the only true judge of a film is time.”  You made a great one, my favorite of the festival. See you in Hollywood.

 

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