Every year, as thanks for letting a bunch of demanding foreigners invade their town, clog their streets and produce prodigious amounts of trash (the kind you have to throw out, not the kind you project for audiences...) Cannes leaves the red carpet in place and gives local residents tickets to see the winning film on the Monday after Sunday's awards ceremony.
It is customary to project the Palme d'Or-winning film. Surely that's the "best" movie, the one every citizen will be clamouring to see, right?
Guess again. Knowing his constituency (I'm told it's the Mayor of Cannes who makes the decision), the man in charge decided to devote two screenings to the runner-up -- Grand Prize winner Of Gods and Men by French director Xavier Beauvois -- and one screening to Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
That way, based on the auditorium's capacity, "only" 2,000 citizens will potentially stop by City Hall to ask "Hey -- what was THAT all about?" -- instead of 6,000.
In fairness, Weerasethakul's top prize-winner was the only film in Competition to rate an "A" from the 21 film critics contributing grades to the prominent American web site indieWIRE. And also as an indicator, as recently as the morning of the awards ceremony, the film had no distributor in France -- a state of affairs that has since been rectified.
It's worth remembering that Cannes may be the worlds' most important film festival but that programmers can only assemble a line-up from those films that are actually completed (and un-shown) come the second week in May. Nineteen films were eligible for prizes from the main jury this year, so president Tim Burton and company were obliged to make their choices from that pool of 19 features, several of which had very little to recommend this level of attention.
That said, Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, set in 1996 in Algeria, is a gorgeous portrait of a small band of French monks who decide to continue their work among the poor Muslim residents of a mountain village, despite the increasing threat of violence from marauding fundamentalists.
The fiirst African film in Competition in 13 years, by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun of Chad, A Screaming Man won the Jury Prize. The touching and skillfully shot story concerns the struggles and regrets of a former swimming champion whose life revolves around his job as a lifeguard at the swimming pool of a modest resort but who must choose between his job and the son he loves and works with.
The Camera d'Or, chosen by a separate jury, goes to the best first film presented in any section of the event. Out of 24 contenders, the prize went to Ano Bisiesto (Leap Year), a Mexican film written and directed by transplanted Australian Michael Rowe, featuring a bold, brave performance by relative newcomer Monica Del Carmen as a freelance journalist whose masochistic tendencies serve a gradually revealed and deeply unnerving purpose.
The directing prize to Mathieu Amalric for Tournee (On Tour) is baffling. The film, in which Amalric plays a put-upon impresario dragging a group of spirited American striptease artists around France en route to a hoped-for date in Paris, feels far too loose and rambling for any award, let alone one for skilled direction. In his acceptance speech, Amalric said he felt as if he'd "come home." The prolific actor, who played the villain in Quantum of Solace, started out as an editing intern at age 17 and intended to remain behind the camera -- but "Arnaud Desplechin made me into an actor at age 30."
The jury's other nutty choice was Best Actress to Juliette Binoche for her mannered and unconvincing performance in Abbas Kiarostami's mannered and unconvincing Certified Copy.
A radiantly emotional Binoche spoke at length, praising her director, thanking her single mom for raising her, mentioning that she forgives her father. "I believe in love -- I think that one day I will actually get married. And I thank all the men who have loved me and put up with me." Binoche was visibly choked up as she displayed the name of the imprisoned Iranian filmmaker who should have served on the jury this year: "I think of Jafar Panahi, I think of him every day. The struggle for artists and intellectuals goes way, way back."
The Best Actor prize was a tie between Javier Bardem in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's Biutiful and Elio Germano in La Nostra Vita. While a case can certainly be made for Bardem's portrayal of a smalltime hustler in contemporary Barcelona who struggles to get his affairs in order before dying [read review here], Germano's performance as a recently widowed construction manager is merely adequate in a film that didn't belong in Competition.
Weerasethakul took the stage in front of 2,000 people in formal attire to say: "I come from the jungle so this decor is surreal for me. It took me three and a half years to make this film and this is a very important moment for Thai cinema. I would like to thank the audiences here for giving me the chance to share my world with you.