Good job, Cannes jury. The Tree of Life wasn’t my favorite film in this year’s Competition, but it was the most notable combination of ambition and accomplishment, and that’s arguably what ought to win an award as weighty as the Palme d’Or. As much as I love Drive, I’d rather see world cinema’s greatest honor go to a visionary, borderline avant-garde work (see also last year’s deserving champ, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) than to an expert riff on B movies of yore. In any case, awarding Best Director to Nicolas Winding Refn was dead-on—terrific as Gosling, Mulligan, Brooks and company are, it’s Winding Refn’s stark deployment of negative space and insistence on slicing through anything that might remotely resemble bullshit that makes their iconic performances possible. Bravo.
I have slightly more mixed feelings about the Grand Prix (or second prize), which was shared between the Dardennes’ typically fine (but somewhat familiar) The Kid With a Bike and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic butt-number Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The latter is an intelligent, meticulous, incredibly beautiful movie that’s offered plenty of food for thought since I saw it, but that I found downright torturous to actually sit through. Mostly, that’s because Ceylan is playing a deliberate, formalist game of keep-away, introducing what looks on the surface like an exciting narrative—the film opens at night, with a bunch of cops and other officials toting two criminals around gorgeously barren landscapes in search of a corpse—only to slow the “action” to a crawl (it takes 90 minutes of this two-and-a-half hour movie just for them to find the body) and focus our attention on bureaucratic trivia and raw bits of the characters’ psyches. Ceylan knows precisely what he’s doing—a lengthy shot of an apple tumbling downhill into a stream, merely to come to rest beside other rotted apples, all but chides us for seeking direct answers—and he uses car headlights the way Kubrick used candles in Barry Lyndon, but I still had enormous trouble staying alert amidst the endless trudging and sniping and sharing of seemingly random anecdotes. But I saw it late at night, after more than a week spent gorging on cinema, so I don’t really trust my negative reaction, and the jury’s high esteem further suggests that I might want to take a second look in future.
What else? The plain old Jury Prize (roughly third place) went to Poliss, the procedural about the Child Prevention Unit that pretty much every American critic, myself included, compared to a TV pilot. I’m fine with Footnote’s award for Best Screenplay, which despite director Joseph Cedar’s best attempt to get all Jeunet on our ass was still among the Competition’s more literary efforts, featuring two extremely well-drawn characters in its father-son duo of Talmudic scholars. Jean Dujardin (Best Actor) is delightful in The Artist, though no more so than his co-star, Bérénice Béjo, and it’s always a pleasure to see an old-fashioned example of style and charm win an acting prize instead of yet another exercise in angst. At the same time, Kirsten Dunst (Best Actress) gave terrific angst in Melancholia, which I watched a second time this morning and found somewhat less irksome. I still think Von Trier badly undermined his depression allegory by turning its first section into the Wedding Reception From Hell, but knowing the film’s subject in advance this time (I went in cold on Wednesday), I was better able to appreciate how fake Dunst’s smile is throughout, except on the rare occasions when everything is going hilariously wrong.
All in all, not a bad year, even if there was no single film I found as great as 2010’s Certified Copy. (In the Competition, that is. Martha Marcy May Marlene, which you’ll have a chance to see in the fall, is in that rarefied ballpark—though the Caméra d’Or jury, which awards the prize for Best First Film, bypassed it in favor of Las Acacias, from Argentina, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to see.) Hope you enjoyed following it from afar, and got a sense of which titles to keep an eye out for as they wend their way to other festivals and (some, eventually) into theaters over the coming months. As always, it’s been a privilege. And as always, good the hell night, I’m exhausted.