The Jury Played by Its Own Rules

Last night in Cannes, as the crowds drained away, a few stragglers pondered the frontrunners at Sunday’s upcoming Palme d’Or ceremony. Many suggested two top contenders, Michael Haneke’s "The White Ribbon" (at left) and Jacques Audiard’s "A Prophet" (below), as the ones with the greatest chances of taking home the top prize. Then, sometime after […]

Last Updated: May 24, 2009 @ 4:08 PM

Last night in Cannes, as the crowds drained away, a few stragglers pondered the frontrunners at Sunday’s upcoming Palme d’Or ceremony.

Many suggested two top contenders, Michael Haneke’s "The White Ribbon" (at left) and Jacques Audiard’s "A Prophet" (below), as the ones with the greatest chances of taking home the top prize. Then, sometime after midnight, a rumor began circling among people who knew people: Marco Bellocchio’s Mussolini biopic "Vincere" would land the Golden Palm, while "Spring Fever, "Lou Ye’s bummer of a sex drama, had a shot at some additional awards.

Neither movie was a festival favorite.

My own theory emphasized the populist approach, suggesting the Haneke and Audiard movies as the biggest possibilities, with dark horse chances for Lars Von Trier’s "Antichrist" and Ken Loach’s "Looking for Eric."

Well. When the awards swiftly unfolded on Sunday evening, one thing was clear: The jury plays by its own rules.

The top choices surprised no one. "The White Ribbon" did indeed land the Palme d’Or, and "A Prophet" stood nearby with the runner-up status of the Grand Prix. Pretty much everything else, however, suggested a fickle jury with unique standards that had absolutely nothing to do with the constant chatter on the Croisette.

Brillante Mendoza, whose "Kinatay," an arty narrative about the kidnap and graphic murder of an exotic dancer, premiered to boos last week, landed best director. "Spring Fever" was honored for best screenplay. Charlotte Gainsbourg got a best actress award of "Antichrist," where her most infamous scene found her character snipping off clitoris. Mutilation and sex, then, won big this year.

There are many ways to interpret the jury’s decision, but let’s boil it down to two extremes: Either they chose to commit an act of defiance by going against the grain, or — more likely — the outcome testifies to the arbitrariness of the process. Nobody knows anything except a handful of people in a room.

Headed by actress Isabelle Huppert, the group also included Robin Wright Penn, Asia Argento and director James Grey. I pondered early on that Argento, ever the epicenter of onscreen female sexuality, might root for the Von Trier film. Grey, meanwhile, might have favored "Inglourious Basterds" (below), since he has expressed a love for popcorn entertainment as his favorite type of movie experience.

"Basterds" actor Christopher Waltz did win the Prix d’interpretation masculine for his chilling role as a Jew hunter, but that was probably the least radical decision of them all.

The jury will explain themselves however they see fit, but I do see an internal logic to many of their choices. If they were going to give anything to "Antichrist," Gainsborough seems like the least controversial way to do it. Von Trier, whom many despise for his confrontational techniques, would have fanned the flames. His female star, however, will become perceived as a bold performer (although some confused folks might claim she’s a victim).

As for Mendoza’s award for "Kinatay," look — it is a well directed movie. That’s why people hate it so much. Mendoza’s cautious camera work and penchant for crafting haunting rhythms make his movie the harrowing experience that so many people rejected. Whether he deserves recognition for this raises a different question altogether, but the guy knows how to make an impactful movie.

Ultimately, the winners of the main competition represent just one part of the festival equation. The grandest Cannes event, as far as I’m concerned, arrived on Friday afternoon at the premiere of Gasper Noe’s "Enter the Void (right)."

This two-and-a-half hour opus needs to be scaled down a bit, but there’s no doubt that the movie represents a highly unique viewing experience. (See my initial reaction here. Noe forces his audience to contemplate major themes about life after death with a tricky formalism that exists on a plane of its own. Is it the "best" movie at Cannes? No, but it sure did help keep the energy flowing at the very end. For those lucky enough to have seen it, the appeal speaks for itself.

All of this suggests one promising conclusion: There are many Cannes Film Festivals; the jury’s decision represents but one point of view. And it’s a plurality of voices — the reflection of a global scene that passionately cares about the state of modern cinema — that will sustain it in the future.