On the evenings when you need to go near the Palais, stay off the Croisette. Walk in as nonsensical a direction as you can to get wherever you’re going. Teleport. Or just stay in. The photographers and their stepladders occupy a patch of concrete across the street from the red carpet, and hundreds of people cram around them. Get too close, and you’ll be impaled with a selfie stick, used as an ashtray, or run over by a stroller — or all three. Remember that moment in Clueless when Cher drives Dionne and Murray onto the freeway, and they all freak out because they know that being on the freeway is the scariest thing ever and yet here they are, screaming for their lives? That was me on Saturday, but standing in human quicksand.
Opposite the Palais is a Chanel store, often the victim of festival congestion. This night it appeared to be the suspect. It was closed, its security gates drawn, for what appeared to be a private event. And desperate to see into the window was the thickest yet most subdued non-disaster-oriented crowd I’ve ever seen here. For about 15 minutes, it was the rubbernecking version of a zombie movie. Onlookers crushed pedestrians, who were turned into onlookers too. Many of us had no idea what we were looking at. But we kept looking — for a way out or in, for an explanation.
A photographer had been holding up his enormous camera and snapping away. Some of the results contained perfect, if uncomfortably obtained, images from inside the store. One zoomed in on Pharrell Williams, who was in town as a part of the film Dope, the wrong-headed Sundance sensation that closed the Directors’ Fortnight. Apparently, the store was closed for a shopping trip for the Victoria’s Secret angel Chanel Iman, whose drugged-up lust bucket leads the race for Dope’s most embarrassing character. If Karl Lagerfeld, the visionary behind Chanel, is designing flattering movie roles, perhaps Williams could add one to the shopping cart.
Another of the photographer’s pictures seemed to capture Marion Cotillard in profile. But she couldn’t have been at the store, since she was a couple of hours away from the premiere of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, the last of the main-competition films and certainly among the least. She’s Lady M to Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, and as sure as I am that Cotillard can do anything, I’m also sure she can’t quite be in two places at once.
For Macbeth, Cotillard liberates her part from calculating venality. The blood of her aspiring queen runs merely warm. She uses pragmatism to inspire her husband to kill his way to the Scottish throne. Nothing, of course, kills her French accent. She and Fassbender have nothing in common as stars — not here. It’s as if she came with the French production money and Kurzel is just making due.
The fault isn’t hers, or Fassbender’s. The movie is a monotonous, monochromatic pageant of slashing and stabbing and slow motion, of men screaming to the digitally altered skies. Kurzel, an Australian who somehow shares adaptation credit with two other writers, gives the movie machismo, but even Zack Synder’s 300 was desperate to give you more than that. Snyder, at least, gave you abs.
Last year, in the Cannes buyers market, not far from huge ads for Sean Penn in The Gunman, I’d seen banners threatening to make this Macbeth come true. And now it has: a slimmed-down, curiously unsexy, brutally tiresome concert of bellicosity. The sound mix prioritizes score and sound design over dialogue. You know Macbeth is in trouble when the only character you can make out is French. Looking at the beards and the violence, you can hear the pitch: What if George R.R. Martin really wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays?
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Sunday evening brought the closing ceremony, and as welcome as Cotillard and Fassbender are on a red carpet, an appearance by either of them would probably have meant prizes for the movie, and that would have amounted to a white flag from the jury. A lot of critics, ones who felt more than lucky to be at the festival, were let down by the Palme d’Or–eligible films: no outright masterpieces, some greatish works of art, a few exciting provocations, but too many films that felt compromised by money or artistic influence or a lack of vision, too many movies that felt unworthy of contention. That’s how it goes some years, and it’s all the more reason to go grazing beyond the Palais. In the Directors’ Fortnight, one could find loveliness by Philippe Garrel and by Arnaud Desplechin, and one of the festival’s major events, a three-part, seven-hour tribute to Portugal and its people by Miguel Gomes. We gripe about the programming because we care, sometimes irrationally.
But Sunday evening is about the competition — who shows up for it, who wins, who really wants to throw a tomato at the host. For the second year in a row, the master of ceremonies job went to the beloved French movie star Lambert Wilson. Wilson is tall and svelte and handsome. He’s got the cloying self-amusement of a maître d’ in a mediocre play or a guest on one of those droll radio trivia shows. On Sunday, a large jewel glittered almost biochemically from the lapel of his suit (it matched the sparkle of his diction). The pin was an accessory but could easily have been the MacGuffin in an Avengers movie. Wilson made note of this festival’s outlandish fashion scandal. During the opening ceremony, he offered a well-received feminist metaphor (“Cannes is a woman”). For closing night, he offered this dumb rejoinder: “Cannes isn’t a woman. It’s a giant flea, a sea monster … ” With that settled, members of the crew stormed the stage, carrying two large white panels.
Oh no. Anytime there’s a break in the procedural rhythm of this show for an homage, duck. A tribute to the movies is about to hit you in the head.
Indeed, Wilson brought on the Japanese visual art-dance troupe enra, which proceeded to do what presumably is its thing. Six of its dancers gesticulated exuberantly in front of those panels, which turned into movie screens. First, they danced to prerecorded music while animated versions of the characters in Pulp Fiction doubled onscreen as their projected shadows. In one, Vincent and Jules stood behind the dancers while a couple of them boogied. Then they returned to their usual personifications of fire, smoke, winged birds, and light. The polite clapping after they’d finished had less to do with applauding their talent and more to do with relief that they were through.
The producers, however, weren’t done. John C. Reilly had been given permission to perform with a four-piece band. He’s been known to do this. For the show, he tried a jazzbo version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Dressed in a white three-piece suit and a matching porkpie hat, he looked like Tom Waits if Tom Waits were reincarnated as the ham in a Venetian barbershop quartet. The audience ate the whole thing up, clapping and whooping. I watched the show from the back of the house and could hear the event staff singing along better than I could hear Reilly. Wilson and Reilly’s stunningly dressed, chronically redheaded copresenter, Sabine Azema, stood off to the side, clapping and swaying too. Afterward, when Reilly and Azema presented the Caméra d’Or for the best first film (César Augusto Acevedo’s Land and Shade, from Colombia), Reilly pretended to be embarrassed by his performance and his foreign-language skills (“Désolé pour ma Franche”). I’ll just say that the rollicking applause for Reilly must really have stung those Japanese dancers.
This wasn’t all. Wilson unveiled the jury one by one. Guillermo Del Toro. Rokia Traoré. Jake Gyllenhaal. Rossy de Palma. Sienna Miller. Xavier Dolan. Sophie Marceau. Joel and Ethan Coen, the festival’s first jury copresidents. As they took their seats to the far right of the stage, looking like glamorous guests on the USS Enterprise, I noticed that the crew had installed a piano at the stage’s opposite end. What now? Wilson brought on the English singer Benjamin Clementine, who wore a midnight-blue double-breasted suit and nothing more, caressing the piano’s pedals with his bare feet. He did Bob Dylan’s “Farewell” as a tribute to the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which won the Grand Prix two years ago from the Steven Spielberg jury. This rendition took Dylan’s garbling to an uncomfortable place. No one was certain what to make of that, either. Maybe Clementine knew he was off. But the assignment — attack the makers of Burn After Reading and A Serious Man with earnestness — was unfairly impossible, like getting food to stick to Teflon. The Coens aren’t designed for that. Maybe Clementine knew it.
Next was a tribute to the filmmaker Agnes Varda, the evening’s livingest legend, who received a big standing ovation. It was overseen by Jane Birkin, who took the stage in a rumpled tuxedo and who, in Varda’s weirdly touching Le petit amour, a.k.a. Kung-Fu Master! (1988), fell hard for Varda’s 15-year-old son, Mathieu Demy. Varda is the sort of heart-first filmmaker who could get away with a movie like that. It was a family affair, for one thing (Birkin’s teenager daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, was also in it). Varda’s place in the French movie firmament is well established and secure. But her speech was not that of a wise, stubbornly chic old woman, but of a flattered ingenue who can’t believe her good fortune. It was as sincere and touching as most of her films and not remotely as shameless as the show the producers had put on up to that point.
The actress, writer, director, and top-shelf emoter Valeria Bruni Tedeschi came on for the screenplay prize. When she was through talking about the importance of writing, Wilson asked one of the Coens to stand and deliver the jury’s verdict (if memory serves, Ethan announced most of the evening’s winners). The winner was Michel Franco’s script for Chronic, in which Tim Roth plays David, a grief-stricken home-care nurse in Los Angeles who changes his identity to suit clients and strangers.
Can we talk about this movie? It screened to boos on Friday. For about 20 minutes, you don’t know what you’re watching and you’re intrigued. Roth sits in a car, waiting to tail a woman who’s just gotten into hers. He bathes and helps dress a different, emaciated woman. He checks someone’s Facebook page. The family of one of his clients — a randy, divorced architect played by Michael Cristofer, who’s both endearing and unpleasant — threatens to sue David for sexual harassment. The movie and David move on to the next situation: a woman (Robin Bartlett, very good) with cancer.
Franco is from Mexico and works in a patient style. The action seems to unfold naturally, in longish, lurking takes that owe a lot to Michael Haneke, whose Amour is obviously on the mind. The best thing about this film is how Franco captures a discomfort with death and illness that the friends and family of the sick silently express but that David lacks. Demise creates a kind of intimacy that fires up his sense of humanity. Roth seems at home in the part’s muted, perverse creepiness. But his performance becomes almost inseparable from the movie’s flagrance. Eventually, it’s clear what Bartlett’s character wants. You know what the movie is up to. Or you think you do. Chronic ends with one of the most insulting shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. At the press conference after the show, members of the jury praised different aspects of the film: its restraint (Del Toro), its politics (Gyllenhaal), its precision (Dolan). But the ending, for me, sacrificed each of those qualities in order to convey a bogus cosmic irony to which Haneke has yet to stoop. Franco hadn’t made a statement. He’d made a knockoff: NoMour.
After Franco, the painfully handsome French star Tahar Rahim came on to talk about actresses, tossed it to Wilson, who lobbed it to one of the Coens, who announced a tie: Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’s Carol and Emmanuelle Bercot in Maïwenn’s Mon roi. That result reflects such a diametrically opposed approach to acting that it felt compromised. Some jurors liked Mara’s intelligence and thawing carnal suppression. Maybe others preferred Bercot’s volcanics. It’s possible to like both. (I do. Maybe the entire jury did, as well.) It’s just that ties muddle clarity. Then again, they also make two people very happy.
Rooney was back in New York, but Bercot was there to accept her award. She entered the Palais pre-emotional, making her way down the aisle, barnacled to Maïwenn, and into the lobby, already a little beside herself. (They arrived after the entourage for the closing-night film, which screened after the show.) Given her state, it seemed fair to assume she was on her way to a burial. Her speech mentioned her amazing experience at Cannes (she also directed the opening-night movie, a bombastic piece of social work called La tête haute), soaked Maïwenn in praise, and described her time here as a dream. It was full of so many pauses and so much shock that it was as if she were trying to sew up a win for next year too.
For the Jury Prize (basically, third place), Laetitia Casta, in shimmering oil-spill-pelican black, threw it to Wilson, who asked for a verdict. It was The Lobster, Yorgis Lanthimos’s relationship satire, which shares the Coens’ sense of absurdity and their old sense of dadaist lethality. The brothers aren’t old, but who knows? Maybe watching Lanthimos’s deadpan gags was like looking in a rearview mirror.
Vincent Lindon won the male actor prize for his work as an underemployed husband and father in Stéphane Brizé’s stressful, moving The Measure of a Man. The audience members flew to their feet and put on the longest standing ovation for a winner since I’ve been coming here. While everyone clapped and cheered, Lindon thanked each jury member, including Del Toro and Gyllenhaal, who leaped to their feet, too. Lindon is a big star in France. He has no lasting American movie star equivalent — unless your car mechanic or butcher or a construction foreman you know has a secret film career. (Guys like Jason Beghe and Max Martini are in the ballpark, but they’re too chiseled, too hot. Lindon fulfills that Spanish concept of morbo: His air of danger and unconventional handsomeness makes him sexy. The masculinity of those other American men lacks Lindon’s emotional suppleness, his awareness of his own body, his chemistry with almost any actor.)
Anyway, Lindon’s was the performance of the festival, defined by its attentiveness, gentleness, and restraint. Onstage, he stood in awe, as rumpled as Birkin, with de Palma’s lipstick on his collar. It all felt very him: He looked like an overnight limo driver caught in the act of something fatiguing but divine. He mentioned the film’s damning economic politics and how he’d never won anything for anything (there are five César nominations with his name on them, but still), and did all the crying that he’s too reserved to do in the movie. A radiant Michelle Rodriguez presented Lindon with his prize, and for the post-speech photo session at the foot of the stage, she stood by him presentationally, as if he were a lit-up vowel.
The directing prize went to Hou Hsiao-Hsien for The Assassin, a gorgeous, nominally martial-arts romance set in the ninth century, toward the rear of China’s Tang Dynasty. The plot is slender but the film itself is tamped down in a way and perversely emotional. A 10-year-old kidnapped by nuns and turned into an assassin becomes a woman (Shu Qi) sent to kill a cousin who’s a possible future husband and certain military big shot. The film’s circumstantial dilemma becomes existential: kill this guy, love him, or set yourself free? This is Hou’s 19th movie, and the one in which all of his control and decorum are brought to bear on the handful of action sequences, which are neither wild nor fantastical but matter-of-fact, strangely human, and breathtakingly elegant. He has a mastery of the art form that never turns a movie into a contraption. Maybe the freedom afforded by his fastidiousness spoke to the Coens, who like to keep their cosmoses on a yo-yo string.
Hou cares here as much about what goes on among these people when they aren’t being buried alive or shooting each other with arrows as when they are. He wants you to think about what’s at stake for the assassin, what it means for her to kill. Some people were bored. Some were confused by the story. As with all of Hou’s movies, you have to be as awake as he is. I actually was left with a thought I rarely have watching martial-arts movies: Violence sucks.
Even when it does, it can be amazing, and sometimes that amazement feels wrong. Going into Sunday night, there was some question about what the jury would do with Son of Saul, a grisly Hungarian Holocaust movie set a crematorium by a first-time director named László Nemes. It premiered on the third day of the festival, and it has wowed almost everyone with its form and its effrontery. Nemes was eligible for the Caméra d’Or, but there seemed to be a sense that the Coens’ jury would reserve a place for him near the top of the pyramid. And they did: It won the runner-up Grand Jury prize.
Son of Saul is an undeniable filmmaking achievement, staging hundreds of murders that we never actually see because the camera is focused on the actions of a Jewish worker at the camp who risks his relative comfort to find a rabbi to help properly bury a gassed child. Nemes has said that he wanted to offer a corrective to less brutal depictions of the gas chambers and crematoriums, namely Steven Spielberg’s in Schindler’s List.
Afterward, Dolan said it was a movie the jury never stopped talking about. The same was true elsewhere around the festival. One objection is that all that formal brilliance leaves the atrocity a literal blur, in a sense denying not that it occurred but whom it killed, focusing on, for lack of a better word, a saint instead of the sinned-against. Trying to top other Holocaust movies might be a worthy moral exercise, but the notion of one-upmanship under the circumstances also feels unseemly. Filming the Holocaust can’t be a software update or a sport.
Nonetheless, with his presenter, Mads Mikkelsen, standing behind him, Nemes gave a good cinephile’s speech, in French, that included his pleasure to be able to bring to Cannes an old-fashioned analog movie. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for U.S. distribution. And if the movie plays the way I expect it to (strongly in major markets for many weeks), we’ll have plenty of time to argue about it.
Nemes’s runner-up prize meant the Palme d’Or could go to a handful of movies. I thought it would have been Paolo Sorrentino’s lavish Alpine spa comedy, Youth, or Jia Zhangke’s beautiful, admittedly cumbersome Chinese-diaspora melodrama, Mountains May Depart. But no. The jury went hardcore. It gave the Palme to Jacques Audiard’s last-minute action-thriller, Dheepan. The audience was back on its feet for another French win, and for a movie that makes a stinging indictment of France’s class and immigration policies. It’s the story of three Sri Lankan strangers (a man, a woman, a girl) posing as a family to get out of their country and into another, less-war-torn one. Oops: They wind up in a Paris housing project, run more or less by crime lords. The now-reformed man, Dheepan, used to be a murderous Tamil Tiger fighter, and those killing skills come in handy when things get out of control. I don’t like the movie’s shorthand nonargument against what the French government does to its poor, brown, and nonnative. Audiard’s formulation is that it’s immoral, but so, too, is his exciting, exploitation-film bloodbath of a solution.
The movie premiered on Thursday, and it’s stuck with me. We all seem to agree here that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best thing we saw. But that kind of consensus can be boring, so we argue about Nemes and Audiard. The latter’s film is daring, both as moviemaking and a political statement about who gets to be the star of a European movie; typically it’s no one as dark-skinned as this film’s stars, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who plays Dheepan, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who plays the wife. They’re both terrific, and so is Audiard’s filmmaking. He’s not sophisticated here but maybe he feels like he doesn’t need to be, that his blunt-instrument finale is enough to shatter some ideological windows. In any case, it grabbed the jury.
To accept the prize, Audiard brought Antonythasan and Srinivasan to the stage, where he also thanked Haneke for not making a film this year. With the show over and the winners and presenters assembled on the stage, it was obvious who the stars were. Gyllenhaal and Miller and a bunch of other people went right over to Antonythasan and Srinivasan to get a hug, shake hands, and say congratulations.
In the jury post-show press conference, you could reach for some similarity between the premise of the film and the general circumstance of jurying. A group of strangers becomes a family. Here, this very different bunch of artists seemed very much together after 12 days. When de Palma lamented that there were no supporting categories and that there should be, loud applause seemed to come from the rear of the room, where Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife, had seated herself (she tried to get something closer, but a seat saver told her no). Miller, meanwhile, kept Ethan Coen laughing for a lot of the half-hour, just as she had McDormand out at dinner the night before. If she’s as funny as that, someone get her some comedies instead of all of these insipid wife parts. That Miller has a sense of humor seems like the one thing about her that we actually are entitled to know.
At some point, the question invariably arose about what the experience has done to the members of the jury, as civilians or as artists. I happen to like this question because whoever is thoughtful enough to answer usually speaks, surprisingly, from the heart. This year that juror was Dolan, a 26-year-old who has thumbed his nose at totemic dead-white-men filmmakers. Sunday night, he said he was a day away from directing his sixth movie and, in answering the jurying-experience question, his earnestness — to the Coens’ mind — was like putting a wiffle ball on a tee. Dolan’s exhilarating movies are loud and vulgar and visually and emotionally histrionic. His answer, though, was plain and sincere. “I feel like a better person,” he said. In unison, Ethan and Joel begged to differ: “You’re not!”