It's far too early to tell whether this has been a vintage Cannes. In the fevered atmosphere of the festival, there is always a rush to judgement. In Cannes, films that may seem very ordinary in the grim light of an autumn day at your local cinema are pronounced instant masterpieces. Others booed by claques in the vast Grand Théâtre Lumière turn out to be critical and box-office winners.
Opinion is also often sharply divided across national lines too. This week, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin was given a very enthusiastic reception by British and American critics, who tipped it as a possible Palme d'Or winner. Tilda Swinton's performance as the tormented mother of a teenager involved in a high-school massacre was rapturously received. French critics were much less impressed. "Pas du tout" (not at all) was the verdict by French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma on whether it liked Ramsay's comeback movie.
The festival began pleasantly enough with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, an amiable but underpowered comedy that offered a tourist-eye view of the French capital. This was anodyne film-making that provided audiences with a few chuckles without convincing anyone Allen is still at the top of his powers.
One early front-runner for the Palme d'Or was The Kid With a Bike, by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. This was another of their realist tales, albeit marginally less grim that some of their earlier efforts. It's the story of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 11-year-old boy living in a kids' home. Cyril refuses to accept that his father has abandoned him and that the father has sold his beloved bike. A hairdresser (Cécile De France) that he meets by chance takes pity on him and agrees to become his foster mum. Cyril is a truculent and confused kid who feels bitter and is prone to violence.
The Kid With a Bike is the opposite of a Disney-style yarn about an orphan waif struggling in a hostile world. Even so, this is a redemptive movie with a surprisingly tender core. For all its realist conventions – the hand-held, documentary-style camerawork, the naturalistic performances – it is also very stylised. Just as 1940s neo-realist movies like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, it's as much a folk tale as it is a study of teenage alienation. The use of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto on the soundtrack and a scene reminiscent of Truffaut's L'Argent de Poche, in which a boy miraculously survives a fall, suggest that the Dardennes aren't quite the arch-realists they're often portrayed to be.
In an attempt to counter a chauvinistic trend that stretches back almost its entire history, the Cannes selection this year has foregrounded films by women directors. In the last 35 years, the festival's top award, the Palme d'Or, has only once been won by a woman (Jane Campion with The Piano in 1993). The competition section this year is still dominated by male directors but film-makers like Ramsay, Julia Leigh (with her erotic fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty), Maïwenn Le Besco (with thriller Poliss) and Japanese director Naomi Kawase (with her epic drama Hanezu No Tsuki) are contenders in the festival contest.
Female directors have also been present in increasing numbers in other sections in the festival. What has been striking is how confrontational and extreme these films have often been. In the Critics' Week sidebar, Israeli director Hagar Ben-Asher directed, scripted and starred in The Slut. This was an austere drama about a mother of two little girls living in a remote, rural part of Israel. Highly promiscuous, she is unable to stop her sexual adventuring until she meets and falls in love with Shai (played by Ishai Golan). The director describes her movie as exploring the "relationship between sex and violence – and the inheritance of family into the relationship between sex and violence." The title and subject matter may suggest that the film is prurient and voyeuristic. In fact, it's a closely focused morality tale with a very grim ending.
Another female director broaching taboo subject matter was Eva Ionesco, with her autobiographical film My Little Princess, about her childhood with her eccentric mother, photographer Irina Ionesco (who, controversially, photographed in the nude, and is played in the film by Isabelle Huppert). As Ionesco made clear when I interviewed her this week, her film was her way of exorcising still-traumatic memories.
"This very first memory is a photograph of myself aged four: I am posing nude with my legs spread and there is some staging in the frame. There is a half-bitten apple on a wall behind me," Ionesco recalled. "I did not remember posing for this photograph, I was too young a child. And then gradually, these images came to my mind as I was exploring the past, and I felt trapped and it was like my head was spinning uncontrollably." She described this "moment of loss of identity and panic" as what triggered the need to write her screenplay. "I had been the victim of "theft" through images, so I needed to speak out."
As some critics have noted, several films across the festival this year (by both female and male directors) have included rape scenes or references to sexual assault, among them Urszula Antoniak's Code Blue, 3D animated feature Prodigies and even The Slut. Even Almodovar touches on the subject in his film, The Skin I Live In. This, though, hardly constitutes a trend. It's a grim observation, but such subject-matter will always be found in movies here at Cannes.
Strangely, given its highly abstruse subject matter, one of the most pleasurable films in competition was Footnote, the latest feature from Israeli director Josef Cedar. It's the study of a father and son who are both Talmudic scholars. Eliezer Scholnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is the father, an obstinate and utterly dedicated academic who has been passed over again and again for top awards. Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is his much more successful son, who has published countless books and is feted by the establishment. They're both intensely jealous of one another.
The humour here is reminiscent of that found in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. Cedar excels at capturing the absurdity that goes hand in hand with the most intense moments in Eliezer and Uriel's lives. In one inspired sequence, senior academics meet in a tiny office to discuss who should be awarded the all-important "Israel Prize". The room is so small that, whenever someone comes through the door, everyone else has to stand up. The constant fidgeting and interruptions add a comic dimension to what would otherwise be a harrowing scene.
In some years, the Cannes competition can be a daunting affair, full of austere, lengthy and impenetrable art-house films. There have been plenty of those, but the current edition has been far stronger than anticipated on crowd-pleasers. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius's black-and-white homage to silent-era Hollywood, had even the most hardbitten of the reviewers chortling along. Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre, about a shoe-shine man who takes pity on a young African immigrant, likewise delighted the critics. Nanni Moretti's satire We Have a Pope had the comic conceit of the new Pope seeing a psychiatrist to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. Even the Dardennes' film had its uplifting moments.
There has been plenty this week to vex festival-goers. The brutal policing of the Croisette (the main Cannes sea-front thoroughfare) by cops even more surly than usual can make the shortest walks to the cinemas an ordeal. The fights to get into screenings like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life or into British beach-front parties have turned into mini-riots. The spats between Egyptian film-makers (who accused one another of collaborating in the past with the fallen Mubarak regime) left a sour taste.
Even so, this has been a more relaxed and upbeat festival than many of its predecessors – and there have been some excellent films along the way. If not a vintage year, 2011 has certainly been a pretty good one. Whatever does win the Palme d'Or, jury president Robert De Niro and his team have been spoilt for choice.
In the Cannes: the best of the fest
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's magnificent folly of a movie is so bold and so offbeat that Robert De Niro's jury will surely find its claims hard to ignore.
Some thought this silent movie was too much of a pastiche and too good natured to win the Palme d'Or, but it is bravura filmmaking.
The Kid With a Bike
The Dardennes have won the Palme d'Or twice before. They're an outside bet for a hat-trick of wins with this tough but tender tale about a kid abandoned by his father.
Terrence Malick shows the birth of the world. Lars von Trier goes one better, depicting its destruction. Juries often like apocalyptic movies...
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