Cannes: sizing up the Competition, part one

Posted by · 7:45 am · May 11th, 2009

Penelope Cruz in Broken EmbracesWith the Cannes Film Festival only two days away, it’s time to take a long hard look (or just a look, if you prefer) at the 20 films in contention for the Palme d’Or, a typically eclectic bunch married by only one factor: all but one are from directors who have been in the race before. (And people accuse the Oscars of playing favorites.)

Cannes is a notoriously tricky (and often well-nigh impossible) contest to predict: partly because the voting body is an ever-changing template, but largely because there’s been no time ahead of the festival for any kind of critical or popular consensus to build around the mostly unseen films on the shortlist.

This may mean that in some cases the jury is susceptible to a film’s auteur cache — think “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006 — but it also allows for surprise attacks by less heralded titles on the basis of quality alone. Though it may seem an obvious winner in retrspect, few were talking about “The Class” last year before it snuck up on the last day and slayed the competition.

With those caveats on the table, here’s a film-by-film (10 today, 10 tomorrow) rundown of this year’s lineup, detailing the Cannes credentials of each director, and offering some thoughts as to where they may sit in the competition. I make no promises — except that at least half my speculation will likely be proved wildly wrong in a fortnight’s time.

“BROKEN EMBRACES” (Pedro Almodovar)

The pitch: Already widely seen and reviewed, the film marks a return to film noir territory for the Spanish master, a complex melodrama headed by Penelope Cruz as an actress trying to rid herself of an aging lover. (Spanish dialogue)

The history: On his two previous Competition appearances, for “All About My Mother” in 1999 and “Volver” in 2006, Almodovar entered the race as the bookies’ favourite, only to land the consolation prizes of Best Director and Best Screenplay, respectively.

The outlook: Reviews so far have been kind, if reserved; several critics appear to delight in Almodovar’s trademark color-saturated visuals and off-kilter humor, but few have suggested that this ranks among his finest works. Almodovar is surely overdue for the festival’s top honor, but if a more unanimously lauded work like “Volver” couldn’t do the trick, my guess is that “Broken Embraces” won’t either. I think the jury may pass altogether.

“FISH TANK” (Andrea Arnold)

The pitch: Oscar-winning short filmmaker Arnold’s sophomore feature details the emotional upheaval experienced by a 15 year-old girl when her mother’s new boyfriend enters the scene. (English dialogue)

The history: The Englishwoman was the festival’s surprise package in 2006, wowing the critics with her debut feature “Red Road,” and taking the bronze-medal Jury Prize into the bargain.

The outlook: Early buzz indicates that the film is a more finely honed take on the surreal atmospherics and grim working-class milieu of Arnold’s debut – with rising star Michael Fassbender adding some name appeal. “Red Road” proved a prescient selection three years ago, building a healthy critical following from its Cannes platform; the Cannes jury often likes to consolidate an early success. It might be too low-key for the Palme, but a prize of some sort would not surprise me.

“A PROPHET” (Jacques Audiard)

The pitch: Sentenced to six years in prison, a 19 year-old Arab youth ascends the power ranks of the reigning gang, learning to fend for himself in the process. (French dialogue)

The history: Though he’s one of France’s most admired auteurs, this is only Audiard’s second Competition appearance. He nabbed the Best Screenplay award for audience favorite “A Self-Made Hero” in 1996.

The outlook: Audiard is an unpredictable filmmaker, alternating between fanciful specialist work like “A Self-Made Hero” and more straightforward crowdpleasers like “Read My Lips.” He married his arthouse and populist sensibilities to smashing effect on his last feature, the BAFTA-winning hit “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” an inspired remake of a pulpy James Toback thriller. “A Prophet” looks to have similar genre-tinged credentials, but I suspect it will need a hefty dose of gravitas to keep the Palme in French hands for two years running.

“VINCERE” (Marco Bellocchio)

The pitch: An elaborate historical biopic chronicling the rise and fall of Ida Dalser, an ardent follower of Mussolini who would end up marrying the Fascist leader, only to be written out of biography altogether. (Italian dialogue)

The history: This is the sixth time in 30 years that the Italian veteran has competed for the gold, but thus far he has only an Ecumenical Jury Prize (for “My Mother’s Smile” in 2002) to show for his pains.

The outlook: Something tells me this could be the one to watch. As detailed above, Bellocchio has certainly served a long apprenticeship at the festival, with very little to show to for it – as recent wins for Ken Loach and Roman Polanski have shown, Cannes is as prone to giving veiled lifetime-achievement awards as any other awards body. It helps that the film is generating positive buzz anyway, particularly for the performance of star Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the current favourite for Best Actress.

“BRIGHT STAR” (Jane Campion)

The pitch: Another period bio, this one starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as 19th-century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, whose love affair ended tragically with Keats’ untimely death at age 25. (English dialogue)

The history: A Palme d’Or winner in both the short and feature film categories, this is Campion’s third Competition appearance, and her first since landing the top prize for “The Piano” in 1993.

The outlook: Campion arrives at Cannes with something to prove, with “Bright Star” marking her first feature-length effort since 2003’s unjustly maligned “In the Cut.” It could be seen as a return to her comfort zone: the director’s most popular work to date has been in the period realm, while her previous foray into literary biopic territory (1990’s “An Angel At My Table”) reaped massive critical rewards. Sight unseen, the film sounds perhaps a little soft-edged for the Palme, but in this instance, critical acclaim should be the top priority.

“IN THE BEGINNING” (Xavier Giannoli)

The pitch: Inspired by true events, thriller follows a small-time crook (Gerard Depardieu) as he builds a highway through rural France. (French dialogue)

The history: Another champ in the short film race, this is Giannoli’s second appearance in the feature Competition, following his last Depardieu starrer “The Singer” in 2006.

The outlook: Details on Giannoli’s effort are sketchy, so we only really have his previous form to go on. “The Singer” was a well-turned, affecting little character piece with a superb Depardieu performance that arguably cartried more weight than the film did. It was warmly received by critics, though I think Giannoli’s new film will need to be more ambitious in concept and execution to have a shot at the gold. Depardieu, however, could be in the running if he matches his previous collaboration with the director.


The pitch: Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi headlines an oddball love story as a lonely young woman who works by day as a contract killer and by night in a Tokyo fish market. Apparently. (Japanese and English dialogue)

The history: Though no stranger to the European festival circuit (“Elegy” and “My Life Without Me” both competed in Berlin), Coixet is the only Cannes virgin in this line-up.

The outlook: It’s hard to say whether Coixet’s status as the only debutante at this particular Competition ball bolsters or hinders her chances. Cannes can be a bit of an insiders’ club, but following accusations that this year’s lineup is too heavy on former favorites, the jury might want to reward a fresh face. As “Elegy” proved last year, the Spanish director’s work can be divisive, but she does have some ardent admirers. She has a tendency towards the maudlin which doesn’t strike me as very Cannes-friendly, but this does sound significantly stranger than her previous work.

“THE WHITE RIBBON” (Michael Haneke)

The pitch: On the eve of World War I, a series of curious events in a rural German school indicate the onset of fascism. (German dialogue)

The history: In his four previous Competition appearances, Haneke has been garlanded with the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for “Code Unknown” (2000), the silver-medal Grand Prix for “The Piano Teacher” (2001), and the Best Director prize for “Cache” (2005), but the Palme d’Or has remained just beyond his reach.

The outlook: On paper, at least, this latest work from the austere Austrian auteur would appear to be the favourite. Not since “Funny Games” in 1997 has Haneke come away from the Croisette empty-handed — but he has yet to win the top prize either, after coming agonizingly close on at least two occasions. The Cannes jury often rewards persistence, and many are saying that the appointment of Isabelle Huppert (twice a Haneke leading lady) as jury president works in his favor. I’d take that with a grain of salt, but if the critics take to the film, there’s only so long he can be denied.


The pitch: Well, you know by now: Demetri Martin leads a quirky ensemble in this comedy about the makings of the legendary Woodstock festival. (English dialogue)

The history: Surprisingly enough, this is only Lee’s second shot at the Palme d’Or (“The Ice Storm” was palmed off with Best Screenplay honors in 1997), though it was in an out-of-competition slot at the 2000 fest that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” began its extraordinary run.

The outlook: Lee may have triumphed twice at Venice in the last four years, but something tells me this isn’t the vehicle to repeat that success at Cannes. Perhaps even more so than the Academy, the Croisette is notoriously resistant to comedy, particularly when it doesn’t come with the “eccentric auteur” stamp of a Coen or Jarmusch effort. That’s not to say the film won’t be a success down the line, but for now, I think the best it can hope for is a Best Screenplay bookend for James Schamus. (Now, watch it sweep the board.)


The pitch: Cheerful comedy about a down-on-his-luck postman whose life receives some much-needed coaching from French football legend Eric Cantona. (English dialogue)

The history: The true Cannes vet of the bunch, this marks the Brit auteur’s ninth Competition appearance. The festival toyed with him for years, handing him various runner-up gongs including two Jury Prizes for “Hidden Agenda” (1990) and “Raining Stones” (1993), before finally (and rather surprisingly) awarding him the Palme d’Or for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006.

The outlook: Loach may be a perennial Cannes darling, but this appears to be by far the most lightweight effort he’s brought to Croisette to date. I get the sense that Cannes arrived at a sense of closure with Loach by awarding him a Palme d’Or that few critics felt he deserved three years ago, so they’re unlikely to repeat the honor now. That said, even minor Loach films often walk away with something on awards night, so if the film is well-liked enough (and it certainly seems amiable), perhaps there could be something for star Steve Evets or previously awarded screenwriter Paul Laverty.

TOMORROW: Ruminations on the other ten Competition titles, including “Inglourious Basterds” and “Antichrist.”

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14 responses so far

  • 1 5-11-2009 at 8:30 am

    Bill said...

    Why is Inglorious Bastards in competition? The more QT props this up, the further down it’s doomed to fall.

  • 2 5-11-2009 at 8:39 am

    Bill said...

    Also, would you mind attaching the language to each film’s summary? That would be really cool.

  • 3 5-11-2009 at 8:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Bill: I’ve added that info. Hope it helps.

    To be fair, however “IB” turns out, it’s a fair enough inclusion. He’s a Cannes alumnus, and they always need a few titles to lure the mainstream media. (They allowed “Death Proof” in, after all.)

  • 4 5-11-2009 at 9:17 am

    Aleksis said...

    I’m really willing Campion to pull it out of the bag & surprise everyone. Maybe we could have two female Best Director nominees next year! /blind optimism

  • 5 5-11-2009 at 9:22 am

    red_wine said...

    IB for some reason doesn’t seem like a serious movie. Not quite spoof or parody but something in that vein.

    Death Proof was a nice albeit light-weight inclusion. Though it still landed at #2 on Cahiers Du Cinema’s Top 10 for 2007. And yep Woodstock seems unlikely to do well, since it is extremely American and seems on the lighter side. I remember Amelie was denied a competition slot because it was deemed too frivolous.

  • 6 5-11-2009 at 9:27 am

    brian said...

    “…austere Austrian auteur.”

    Well played, sir.

  • 7 5-11-2009 at 9:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ha, without thinking, I started with “austere.” And then I couldn’t resist.

  • 8 5-11-2009 at 9:31 am

    adelutza said...

    Perfect. I wish all write-ups about films at Cannes were as concise and all-inclusive. Looking forward to reading more tomorrow.

  • 9 5-11-2009 at 10:01 am

    the world said...

    hey when are you guys going to update your oscar predictions??

  • 10 5-11-2009 at 10:19 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kris will update his after Cannes. I’ll also probably pipe in with a set of my own predictions around then.

  • 11 5-11-2009 at 11:19 am

    chad said...

    I like how Campion directed In the Cut, but that script is VERY justly maligned.

  • 12 5-11-2009 at 11:40 am

    head_wizard said...

    Nice analysis, it sounds as likly as anything else with Cannes being so unpredictable. Also agree that Huppert being the jury head doesn’t help Haneke really. Eager to hear what else you have to say. Where is the buzz from Vincere been? Though it would be great if Giovanna Mezzogiorno got best actress accolates she is always an interesting actress to watch.

  • 13 5-11-2009 at 12:37 pm

    Bill said...

    Guy: Thanks.

  • 14 5-12-2009 at 7:05 am

    Mike V. said...

    Broken Embraces is a terrible movie. It’s a complete mess and Penelope Cruz’s performance was average; I think she should be taken out of the predictions. She won’t be anywhere in next years’ awards.