Cannes Film Fest 2006: Year 59–New and Old Faces

Cannes Film Fest, May 28, 06-Artistic director Thierry Fremaux labeled the 59th edition of the Festival de Cannes as “Cinema of Renewal,” and indeed, the competition included many young directors, unlike last year’s edition, which represented cinema of established auteurs.

Nonetheless, artistically, it was not a particularly remarkable festival–as far as the main lineup is concerned. With one exception, Andrea Arnold (see below), there were no major discoveries, and not a single film was totally embraced by the critics.

The three most popular pictures among the press were Pedro Alomodvar’s “Volver,” Alejandro Gonzalez Innnaritu’s multilingual “Babel,” and the Turkish marriage drama, “Climates,” by the respected auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who also acts in his film with his real wife.

Ken Loach finally Wins

Honoring a veteran auteur rather than a young turk, the Palme d’Or was given to British director Ken Loach for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” a political chronicle of the bloody Irish-British strife circa 1920-1922, told through the tragic story of two brothers (one played by Cillian Murphy), who find themselves fighting on different sides of the camp.

Because Loach has been such a presence in Cannes with eight films that have won other prizes, he was not considered likely. But jury president, cult Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “2046”) said Loach’s powerful story of Irish rebels battling the British and also one another was the unanimous choice for the top prize after a screening that left the entire jury “speechless.”

“Our film is a little step in the British confronting their imperialist past,” said Loach in a speech delivered in English and French, adding in a reference to the current War in Iraq, “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past we can tell the truth about the present.”

Neglecting Pedro Almodovar

The popular favorite for the Palm d’Or, “Volver,” had to settle for two lesser prizes, including the best screenplay for Almodvar, who’d won the director prize for “All About My Mother,” in 1999.

A tribute to the personal and collective strength of women, “Volver” is one of the Spaniard’s more accessible films , endowed with the kind of warmth and emotionalism that was missing from his last film, the harsh noir “Bad Education.”

Starring Penlope Cruz in one of her strongest performances, as a Spanish Mother Courage modeled on 1950s Italian heroines, “Volver” is a melodrama in which tragic acts become comic and death prevails in the midst of life.

“Volver’s” other prize was an unusual ensemble award to the six women of the movie, all of whom paid tribute to the director. Penelope Cruz, earlier rumored to be frontrunner for the female award, was especially emotional, calling Almodvar “the greatest and the bravest director. You put so much magic in our careers and our lives, I love you with all my heart.” Almodovar may take consolation in the fact that Loach has been a frequent visitor at Cannes, represented by eight films in competition, including “Looks and Smiles,” “Hidden Agenda” and “Raining Stones.”

Ensemble

Equally emotional were the five men who won the ensemble acting award for their work in Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory” (“Indigenes”). This French/North African production relates the difficulties faced by Algerian and Moroccan troops who volunteered to fight for France during World War II. A war movie with a different setting and a contemporary twist, “Days of Glory” is an intelligent movie that blends authentic realism with contemporary social relevancy. The actors celebrated their win by gathering on stage and singing a vintage military marching song from the film to a rousing reception.

The festival’s Grand Jury (the runner-up) prize went to the sharply divided “Flanders,” directed by Bruno Dumont, whose “L’Humanit” caused a scandal when it won several awards in 1999. Though not as strong as “Life of Jesus,” for some, “Flanders” was a return to form, particularly coming after “Twentynine Palms,” an excessive sexual and violent film that few saw. The movie links some blunt male-female sexuality in France to shocking violence on an unspecified Middle Eastern battlefront.

The Emotionalism of Babel

The best director award went to the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu for “Babel.” Linking personal identities and global politics in an intriguing and emotionally compelling way, “Babel” is Innaritu’s most ambitious and commercial film to date. Working on a larger canvas and with bigger budget ($25 million), the film, co-scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, completes Innaritu’s trilogy that began with “Amores Perros” and continued with “21 Grams.”

A single rifle shot fired by accident by two Moroccan boys leads to an international political scandal and personal tragedies of the highest order, involving an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling in Morocco, a sensitive Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes care of their young kids and her irresponsible nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a Japanese family of a single father and rebellious daughter in the far and remote Tokyo.

At the center of “Babel” is the problem of lack of communication in the post 9/11 era. The title refers to the biblical notion of people speaking different languages and unable to establish meaningful communication. Shot in three countries (Mexico, Japan, and Morocco) and in four languages (English is the fourth), “Babel” demonstrates continuity in Innaritu’s concerns, namely, the vulnerability of human beings in today’s paranoid and terrorists-ridden world as they try to communicate across physical borders and language barriers.

The Cannes’ Jury Prize went to “Red Road,” an intense, Scottish-set story of surveillance and revenge by English director Andrea Arnold, the only first-time director in competition, who had won a 2005 Oscar for her short film, “Wasp.” Arnold, who some see as working in the vein of Jane Campion, is a talent to watch.

Ugly American in Cannes

Aside from the multilingual “Babel,” financed largely by Paramount, the festival’s American films were shut out of the jury awards. Richard Linklater, the only director in Cannes this year to have two movies, disappointed twice, first with the competition entry “Fast Food Nation,” a simplistic message film about the fast food industrynot unlike McDonaldthat failed to dramatize Eric Schlosser’s nonfictional book and in which all the characters, Americans and Mexicans, are one-dimensional.

Linklater’s other work, the rotoscoping animation, “A Scanner Lightly,” based on Phillip Dick’s 1977 paranoia novel, played in the Certain Regard section. Failing to impress critics, the film, which stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder, didn’t match up the standards set by Linklater’s previous animation, the 2001 “Waking Life.”

In general, it was a bad year for American movies in Cannes, beginning with “The Da Vinci Code,” which served as opening night, and continuing with the premiere of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which, in the hands of Brett Ratner, was considered a step down after the first two installments from Bryan Singer (who left the project to relaunch the new Superman franchise).

Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” produced by her noted father Francis Ford (among others), was greeted with boos as well as applause. Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography, Coppola’s modernist look at the French Royalty before the Revolution is frivolous (a souffl rather than real cuisine) but it’s nice to look at due to Milena Canonero’s lush costumes and its has vivid performances from Kirsten Dunst as the notorious queen (“let them eat cake”) and Jason Schwartzman as King Louis XVI.

Something of a comeback for a director still best known for “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin’s small-budget noir paranoia “Bug,” based on a long-running Off Broadway play and starring Ashley Judd, won the FIPRESCI (the international critics award) for the Director’s Fortnight section.

As always with Cannes, some excellent competition films were neglected. Perhaps the best of the slighted was “Pan’s Labyrinth,” by the brilliant fantasist Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican writer-director of “Cronicas,” “Mimic,” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” Part fairy tale, part magical fantasy with dazzling special effects, made with an astute dedication to mood and tone, “Labyrinth” follows a young girl, raised by a Fascist stepfather, who encounters a world of strange and wondrous creatures at the end of an ancient labyrinth.

Other Awards

The Palme d’Or for short films went to Norway’s “Sniffer,” directed by Bobbie Peers, and “First Snow,” directed by Pablo Augero, from France and Argentina. Florence Miailhe’s “Conte de quartier,” from France and Canada, received an honorable mention.

The Un Certain Regard prize was presented to Wang Chao’s contemporary Chinese drama “Luxury Car.” Special jury prize for the Official Selection sidebar went to Aussie helmer Rolf De Heer’s Aboriginal tale “Ten Canoes,” while acting prizes in the section were given to Dorotheea Petre for the Romanian-French coming-of-age drama “How I Spent the End of the World” and to Don Angel Tavira for the Mexican drama “The Violin.”

The Camera d’Or, given to a first feature from all the sections went to Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s witty political satire “12:08 East of Bucharest,” which played at the more innovative Directors Fortnight section.

The Jury

At the jury press conference following the ceremony, Helena Bonham Carter stated, “You’d think, two films a day, what a pleasure. But there’s been lots of violence, lots of brutality, and we’ve had to enter very bleak landscapes, and it’s taken a real toll on all of us. The Loach film, which was one of five movies about war, I can’t explain our mass reaction. I think we were just profoundly moved.”

Thematically, war was the dominant subject among several of the winners including “Flanders,” “Days of Glory,” and the Loach film). At least one third of the films in competition (and many in the other sections) reflected the post 9.11 zeitgeist, dealing with various anxieties and paranoias by presenting contemporary meditations on the state of global politics and the way we live now.

Striking a different and more humorous note, Jury president Wong pointed out that, “this was the most hot-looking jury I’ve ever seen,” what with the beauty of Italian Monica Bellucci, Chinese Ziyi Zhang and Brit Bonham Carter balanced by the cool of Samuel L. Jackson and the casualness of Tim Roth. Bellucci’s husband, actor-director Vincent Cassel, hosted the ceremony. Other jurors were French director Patrice Leconte and Argentinean Lucrecia Martel, whose “The Holy Girl” played in competition two years ago.

Next year, Cannes is celebrating its 60th anniversary and expectations will be even higher than they were this year. Stay tuned.

This is the first of three articles about the Cannes Film Fest 2006