x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A controversial Cannes

The usual debate has erupted after the announcement of this year's Cannes award-winners. It's as dependable as traffic on the Croissette.

Austrian director Michael Haneke hugs the president of the jury, Isabelle Huppert, after being awarded the Palm d'Or for his movie, White Rabbit.
Austrian director Michael Haneke hugs the president of the jury, Isabelle Huppert, after being awarded the Palm d'Or for his movie, White Rabbit.

If you want to spot a Palme d'Or-winner in the making, it is said you should look not at the films but at the jury. That approach wouldn't have led you far astray as the 62nd Cannes Film Festival came to an end on Sunday. The jury of film actors, writers and directors led by the veteran French star Isabelle Huppert gave its highest award to The White Ribbon, an austere, symbolically freighted drama about dark deeds in a German village on the eve of the First World War. It was made by Michael Haneke, who coincidentally enjoyed his greatest success directing Huppert in The Piano Teacher seven years ago; his new film was indeed one of the most admired in competition, a rare triumph in a festival in which many of his fellow auteurs - Pedro Almódovar, Ken Loach and Ang Lee among them - underperformed. However it was expected that Huppert's jury would want to avoid the appearance of partiality. No such squeamishness here, which is in its own way admirable.

Haneke's victory edged out the long-standing favourite, Jacques Audiard's Un Prophète, which depicts the rise of a North African crime boss through a provincial French jail. The film picked up de facto second place, the Grand Prix, despite having been tipped for the Palme ever since it first screened a fortnight ago. Asked, as he claimed, for the 40th time in 20 minutes whether he felt cheated of his rightful victory, Audiard humorously demanded to know if there was something wrong with the prize he had actually received, a good-natured line which was well-taken at the press conference following the closing ceremony.

Audiard's award was hardly the most controversial of the jury's decisions. The prizes for best direction and best screenplay went to Brilliante Mendoza's Kinatay and Lou Ye's Spring Fever respectively. The former, a real-time and ultra-naturalistic depiction of an abduction and dismemberment, had been reviewed variously as "unsubtle", "unpleasant", "unremittingly tedious" and "vile". Ye's melodrama, on the other hand, was widely criticised precisely for the aimlessness of its script, which was developed on the fly during illegal shoots in China. Jeers greeted both announcements.

There were further catcalls following the announcement that Park Chan-wook's campy vampire saga Thirst would be sharing the Jury Prize with the favourably received Fish Tank, a solid piece of British social realism from Andrea Arnold. Accepting the award, Park announced: "I think I still have a long way to go to be a true artist." Cue vocal agreement in the press screening. Other awards hewed closer to the critical consensus. Alain Resnais, the 87-year-old director of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Wild Grass, one of this festival's most ingenious and purely pleasurable films, was given a lifetime achievement gong. The prizes for best actor and actress went to Christoph Waltz and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Waltz was nominated for his crowd-delighting turn as a Nazi colonel in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. In an emotional acceptance speech, he said cryptically that Tarantino "gave me my vocation back". Gainsbourg's prize on the other hand may be one of the hardest-won in the history of cinema: her performance in Lars Von Trier's psychodrama Antichrist, though perhaps not great acting in a conventional sense, is nonetheless by turns exposing, harrowing and quite possibly traumatising. She earned that prize. All the same, she seems to be on better terms with Trier than his previous leading ladies, Björk and Nicole Kidman, each of whom he reportedly drove up the wall. Gainsbourg thanked the director warmly and spoke of her complete trust in his vision.

The Camera d'Or went to one of the highlights of the Un Certain Regard programme, Samson and Delilah, a simultaneously furious and meditative depiction of Australian Aboriginal lives nearly destroyed through neglect. Its teenage stars, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, wouldn't learn of their victory until someone could visit them at home since, as the director Warwick Thornton explained, neither of them has a phone. That may have to change: their sensitive performances have marked them for great things.

Finally, it's gratifying that the most impressive film I saw at the festival came away with a significant award. On Saturday, the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's second feature, Dogtooth, claimed the big prize for the Un Certain Regard programme. A surreal and disturbing fable about a family of grown-up children who have been lied to about the outside world all their lives, the film bears a certain thematic resemblance to The White Ribbon: both read as fables about paternalism. Where Haneke's film has portentous austerity, however, Dogtooth offers excellent jokes and skin-crawling craziness. It could have been shot on Haneke's catering budget, but it makes up for that in great ideas and terrific writing. Here's hoping the award gets it the attention it deserves. After all, what else is Cannes for?