It is impossible to second-guess Cannes juries. They have consistently confounded critics' expectations, giving top prizes to films no-one tipped in advance while overlooking titles that reviewers thought were near-masterpieces. This year, for once, Jury President Isabelle Huppert and her colleagues were spoilt. The 2009 Competition was one of the strongest in recent memory. Even so, Huppert and co still managed to startle us... at least a little.
As widely predicted, French director Jacques Audiard's prison drama A Prophet picked up one of the main prizes (the Grand Prix). It maintained its position at the top of critics' polls throughout the festival. Nor was Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or for The White Ribbon much of a surprise. Haneke is a towering figure of European arthouse cinema, a filmmaker with the gravitas and self-consciousness of old masters like Ingmar Bergman. Nobody would impugn Huppert's integrity as a jury president but you can't help but notice that she and Haneke go back a long way. She starred in Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), also a prize-winner in Cannes, and in his The Time Of The Wolf (2002).
To its credit, this year's Cannes jury gave prizes to two of the most divisive films in competition. Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress for her extraordinarily brave performance in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, a role that is gruelling in the extreme. In the course of the film, Von Trier requires the long-suffering Gainsbourg to convey grief and psychosis. There are frequent, very graphic sex scenes. In some sequences, it is as if nature itself has turned against her. In others, she herself seems to embody the evil side of nature. It must have been hellish for her to make and she deserves the plaudits.
Although Quentin Tarantino won a Palme D'Or for Pulp Fiction (1994), Cannes juries rarely give major prizes to big US films. No Country For Old Men and LA Confidential are among the many American films spurned by the Festival. It was heartening, therefore, to see Christoph Walz win Best Actor for his wonderful turn as the Nazi villain in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. This was an extravagant, pantomime-style piece of acting, tremendously enjoyable but very different from the miserablist, Method-style performances that generally win gongs.
Many critics – especially British ones – in Cannes had predicted Jane Campion would win something for Bright Star, about the love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It is hard say what was the bigger surprise – Campion being ignored or the Best Screenplay prize that went to Lou Ye for his rambling gay-themed drama Spring Fever, or the best director award picked up by Filipino maverick Brillante Mendoza for Kinatay.
Ken Loach was overlooked but at least the Brits could console themselves with The Jury Prize for Andrea Arnold's second feature Fish Tank. She won an Oscar for her short film Wasp in 2004 and the BAFTA and Cannes Jury Prize for her debut feature Red Road in 2007. The question is whether the critical plaudits will translate into box-office success. Arnold's brand of British social realism remains a tough sell. Will the Cannes prize lure audiences when the film is released a few months from now? It can't hurt.