In typical Cannes style, the favoured films (Waltz with Bashir, Che, Gomorrah) lost out to an underdog and this is also the first time since 1987 that a French film (Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan, in case you were wondering) has won the top prize at Cannes.
Directed by Laurent Cantet, it is the story of a teacher in a tough Paris school based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau (who plays himself in the film) about his life as a young teacher.
Talky in the best sense, the film exhilarates with its lively, authentic classroom banter while its emotional undercurrents build steadily but almost imperceptibly over a swift 129 minutes.
One of the most substantive and purely entertaining movies in competition at Cannes this year, it will further cement Cantet’s sterling reputation among discerning arthouse auds in France and overseas.
The film, Mr. Cantet’s fourth feature, concerns a young teacher dealing with a tough class in an urban high school.
It’s hardly a new idea for a movie — from “To Sir With Love” to “Dangerous Minds” and beyond, Hollywood has always had a soft spot for melodramas of pedagogical heroism — but Mr. Cantet attacks it with freshness and precision, and without a trace of sentimentality.
The film focuses tightly on the dynamics and concerns of the classroom, never straying into details of the lives of kids or adults outside.
Yet even though it takes place entirely “entre les murs”, it offers a rich microcosm of today’s multi-ethnic French population and fascinating insights into the complicated dil emma s and misunderstandings which teaching – and indeed learning – can entail.
Everything rings absolutely true in this film, and everything is utterly engrossing from start to finish, despite the apparent lack of a straightforward narrative during the first hour.
At the end, in a delightfully unexpected allusion to Plato’s ‘Republic’, the filmmakers drop a hint as to what they’ve been up to; there are no easy answers proffered to the various questions raised about education, schools and society, but the film makes for admirably lucid, subtle and thought-provoking drama throughout.
When we select the Palme d’Or winner, I think we are going to feel very confident that the film-maker who made the film is very aware of the times in which he or she lives.
With that in mind, here is a run through of the contenders and why they may – or may not – win the big prize?
Adoration(Dir. Atom Egoyan): Although Atom Egoyan has done some remarkable work in the past (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter), his last couple of films have struggled with audiences and critics. His latest didn’t exactly set Cannes alight and seems unlikely to have a chance.
Blindness (Dir. Fernando Meirelles): The opening night film was something of a downer and got mixed reactions, but critics praised the skill of Meirelles’ filmmaking and this has the vague whiff of a ‘compromise winner’ which could satisfy a divided jury.
Che(Dir. Steven Soderbergh): Although it seemed to split the critics, the biggest problem Steven Soderbergh’s epic Che Guevera project has is that it is actually two films. However, rumours from Cannes suggest that Penn favours this film, so it must be seen as a strong contender.
Delta(Dir. Kornel Mundruczo): Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo was according to one critic a ‘typical festival art film’ which may or may not help it. The lack of buzz would indicate it is out of the running.
The Class (Dir. Laurent Cantet): A French film winning the Palme d’Or is a rare sight and this tale of a high school teacher in a poor neighborhood could be an outside shot if the jury is inclined to go for a more low key approach.
24 City (Dir. Zhangke Jia): This tale of economic change in China could be a dark horse and the recent tragic events in that country may give it a deeper resonance with the jury.
Gomorrah(Dir. Matteo Garrone): This dark and unflinching look at the Mafia in Naples, adapted from Roberto Saviano‘s bestselling book, has pleased many critics. A counterblast to traditional TV and movie representations of the Mafia, it might almost be seen as a metaphor for how the world currently being run. A very strong frontrunner.
Il Divo(Dir. Paolo Sorrentino): The other Italian entry, dealing with MP Giulio Andreotti, may struggle in the shadow of Gomorrah as it to deals with organized crime albeit from a much drier and different angle.
Changeling(or The Exchange) (Dir. Clint Eastwood): Eastwood’s tale of a mother (Angelina Jolie) losing her son amidst a sea of corruption in 1920’s LA got solid reviews and has to be a strong contender. In his opening press conference Penn agrily denied the possibility of favouritism towards his friend and former colleague saying all films would be judged equally. That actually makes me think it won’t win but if it did, given the confusion over the title, will anyone know what to call it?
Frontier Of Dawn (Dir. Philippe Garrel): Veteran Philippe Garrel’s film about an affair between a photographer and a beautiful woman didn’t go down too well with the critics, plus a lurch to the supernatural makes it a long shot for any prizes.
The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel): This tale from Argentina of a woman who thinks she has run something over has been dubbedby J. Hoberman “the Best Film in Competition Least Likely to Win a Prize.” Which is just one of many reasons why it probably won’t win.
Lorna’s Silence (Dir. Jean-Pierre Et Luc Dardenne): Although the Belgian duo are past winners at Cannes (in 1999 and 2005), their brand of gritty realism may be wearing thin. A third win would be a remarkable achievement but I can’t see it happening.
Lion’s Den(Dir. Pablo Trapero): This tale of a woman in an Argentine prison may not be in the running for the main prize but Martina Gusman scooping Best Actress is a possibility.
Linha De Passe(Dir. Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas): Although the praise was rather muted for this tale of a poor family in Sao Paolo it may find favour with some on the jury. Still an outside bet though.
My Magic(Dir. Eric Khoo): Singapore’s Eric Khoo is very much a director who operates on the arthouse circuit. The fact that this was only shown on a single afternoon screening on Friday would seem to suggest that this film – about the relationship between a drunken former magician and a 10-year-old boy – has no chance whatsoever of winning the Palme d’Or.
Palermo Shooting(Dir. Wim Wenders): Although he won in Paris, Texas back in 1984 and got Best Director for Wings of Desire in 1987, German director Wim Wenders has gone off the boil somewhat. Don’t Come Knocking back in 2005 signalled a new low for this once brilliant filmmaker and the lack of interest and buzz for this tale of a photographer in Sicily means it almost certainly won’t win.
Serbis(Dir. Brillante Mendoza): This tale of a struggling porn cinema in Manila had a few admirers but I would hazard a guess that it’s chances of any prizes tonight are limited.
Synecdoche, New York(Dir. Charlie Kaufman): Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut about a New York theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) baffled a lot of critics. Although it has admirers it is hard seeing the jury giving it the big prize, even though it had the ‘lucky’ Friday slot and a strong pedigree.
Two Lovers(Dir. James Gray): An old fashioned tale of a Brooklyn man (Joaquin Phoenix) caught between two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and (Vinessa Shaw) this polarised critics and seems unlikely to scoop any prizes. But given the Cannes selectors persistence in inviting him back most years, who knows? A wildcard.
Three Monkeys(Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan): A strong contender that played very well with some critics, this tale of a driver taking the rap for his well connected boss could find favour amongst some judges, but it looks like a sneaky dark horse.
A Christmas Tale(Dir. Arnaud Desplechin): Whilst this tale of French family reuniting over Christmas pleased quite a few critics, it doesn’t smack of the kind of film that is going to win this year. It looks as though the French will have to wait another year for a Palme d’Or winner.
Waltz With Bashir (Dir. Ari Folman): Perhaps the film of the festival amongst the cognoscenti on the Croisette, this animated tale of Ari Folman’s personal experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War ticks all the boxes. Visually arresting, politically engaged and tipped by many to scoop the Palme d’Or. Whilst that doesn’t mean it will win, it is looking like the favourite.
My prediction to win?
Waltz with Bashir (although Gomorrah is a very close second).
Like an anxious artist afraid he may not get another chance, Charlie Kaufman tries to Say It All in his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.”
A wildly ambitious and gravely serious contemplation of life, love, art, human decay and death, the film bears Kaufman’s scripting fingerprints in its structural trickery and multi-plane storytelling.
At its core a study of a theater director whose life goes off the rails into uncharted artistic territory, it’s the sort of work that on its face appears overreaching and isn’t entirely digestible on one viewing.
Mr. Kaufman, the wildly inventive screenwriter of ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, has, in his first film as a director, made those efforts look almost conventional.
Like his protagonist, a beleaguered theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he has created a seamless and complicated alternate reality, unsettling nearly every expectation a moviegoer might have about time, psychology and narrative structure.
But though the ideas that drive “Synecdoche, New York” are difficult and sometimes abstruse, the feelings it explores are clear and accessible.
These include the anxiety of artistic creation, the fear of love and the dread of its loss, and the desperate sense that your life is rushing by faster than you can make sense of it.
A sad story, yes, but fittingly for a movie bristling with paradoxes and conundrums, also extremely funny.
The directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, messy work of inspired brilliance and real humanity, a film that enthralls and affects even as it infuriates and confounds.
…Synecdoche, New Yorkis bolder and bigger and weirder than the movies that sprang from Kaufman’s scripts for Spike Jonze (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); it’s also colder and crueler than those films.