MIFF Director Jaie Laplante on Palme d'Or Contenders at Cannes

Categories: Film and TV
Film Fiend features dispatches from Miami International Film Festival Director Jaie Laplante as he scopes flicks on the indie film festival circuit.

As another Cannes Film Festival winds down, all the chic cineastes here on the Croisette are pretending not to care about the Grand Jury prizes, awarded in a glitzy ceremony before the festival's closing-night film, Christophe Honore's The Beloved. But apathy, says the Film Fiend, is the refuge of the powerless -- and certainly one understands the frustration of trying to predict the jury's selection process, which is often fraught with politics and compromises.

It's very often the case that the Palme d'Or winner, at least, will reflect the personality of the jury's president, which this year is Robert De Niro. Given his artistic personality and icon-of-American-cinema status, does that give the edge to Terrence Malick's symphony of Americana, The Tree of Life?   Or one of the other America-set (but European-directed) films: This Must Be the Place, starring longtime De Niro buddy Sean Penn; Drive, the L.A. car-chase thriller starring Ryan Gosling; or The Artist, the tribute to the golden age of Hollywood silent movies?

It's a near-impossible mind puzzle, and while Film Fiend looks forward to the results, for now I can only concentrate on what I think most deserves to win. The two films with the highest overall critical consensus are Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre and the Belgium codirecting brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid With the Bike. Both films, especially the latter, are wonderfully pure, simple, and powerful creations, created by true auteurs working at the top of their game.  

The Dardennes are the most deserving but have already won the Palme d'Or twice before, and if they win a third time, it would make them the only filmmakers in Cannes history to achieve such a feat. I don't see that happening. If the jury aligns with the critics, it's more likely to go to Kaurismaki, who has never won the top prize at Cannes. Of course, if neither wins any prizes, no one will remember that they were leading contenders today!

Another great filmmaker to have never won the Palme d'Or despite frequent appearances at Cannes is Spain's Pedro Almodóvar. His new film and first real genre thriller, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In) has been receiving generally positive buzz here in Cannes although the praise is marked with reservations that the new film isn't as "resonant" as his masterpieces of the past decade, Talk to Her and Bad Education.  

Film Freak scoffs at such a notion -- La Piel Que Habito is vintage and purely delicious Almodóvar -- rapes, murders, kidnappings, gender mutation, mothers, Hitchcockian music, the color red, and Antonio Banderas, who hasn't had so much fun onscreen in years. It's all a total delight, from start to finish, moves quicker and dazzles considerably more than Volver and Broken Embraces, his last two wonderful films. The only thing missing is Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma, who isn't in the film but was certainly stealing the show on the red carpet at the premiere in a typically outrageous, vintage Jean Paul Gaultier S&M-style dress.

Denmark, all 16,000 square miles of it, made great strides in its quest for global cinema domination. Not only is this tiny country the world's current Oscar holder (for Susanne Bier's In a Better World), but also it had two headline-grabbing directors in this year's competition. Lars von Trier stirred up some of the most polarizing controversy the festival has seen in years; just before the debut of his epic new film, Melancholia, von Trier shocked everybody by sympathizing with Hitler "the man" and making disparaging remarks about Israel, leading the festival to take the awkward step of having him declared persona non grata and banning him from stepping within 100 feet of the Palais.   

Nikki Beach promptly canceled his afterparty, and von Trier's apology (offering the excuse that he was "egged on") fell on deaf ears.  The head of the Danish Film Institute condemned his comments.  

Behind all of this is a major, sometimes-murky, but undeniably affecting film -- Armageddon meets The Celebration, as some critics have described it. U.S. distributor Magnolia's once-high hopes for Melancholia might now be dashed, but although the film itself remains in the competition, the things that everyone is talking about are the nature of von Trier's intentions, the festival's reaction, and the filmmaker's future. If the film wins any major prizes, it's sure to be perceived as a political statement.  

Also from Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish, hyperkinetic, hyperviolent take on L.A. film noir, Drive, was a major thrill ride, with Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver who seeks out extra cash by working nights as a driver on real-life crime heists. Cary Mulligan and Albert Brooks (in an unusual role, as a very evil guy) also star.  

Reminiscent of slick '80s noirs such as 8 Million Ways to Die and To Live & Die in LA. (complete with a cheesy, synthesized, Giorgio Moroder-style soundtrack), Drive won points for Refn's trademark tight, muscular filmmaking but lost a few members of the Cannes crowd with its rather high-concept story (which wraps up in just 80 minutes).

Film Fiend said he wouldn't try to predict the Palme d'Or winner, but old habits are hard to resist. The sleeper hit of the festival (you'd have to be a true humbug to hate it) is one of the most original: French director Michel Hazavanicius's black-and-white silent film, The Artist.  Yes, you read that correctly: a silent movie, with only music, just like the kind they stopped making in 1929 when sound was invented. Not an homage to a silent movie -- an actual silent movie. Film Fiend is still in shock that anyone would dare such a thing in the age of 3-D and $300 million budgets (Avatar).  

Yet this sweet love story -- involving the world's number one silent movie star, who can't get work after the advent of sound, and the chorus-line girl who becomes a megastar once the talkies took off -- is a charmer.  Already snapped up for U.S. distribution by the Weinstein Company, which plans to release it around Christmas, it's exactly the type of underdog, feel-good film (like Shakespeare in Love and The King's Speech) that has scooped up Oscars for the company. De Niro and friends might just get the jump on the Oscar campaign by giving it the biggest golden palm leaf tomorrow night.

(Editor's note: The Palm d'Or was awarded to Tree of Life 24 hours after this post was written.)

Read Jaie Laplante's three earlier dispatches from Cannes 2011 here.

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