Diverse, defiant choices from Spielberg's jury put a bow on a satisfying Cannes fest
I wonder if Nanni Moretti is feeling just a tiny bit envious of Steven Spielberg right now. A year ago, the Italian filmmaker -- then wrapping up his stint at the president of the Cannes Film Festival -- politely grumbled that the awards hadn't gone entirely as he and his jurors would have liked. So enraptured were they by their universally well-received Palme d'Or choice, Michael Haneke's "Amour," that they wanted to throw it an extra award or two, particularly for its remarkable veteran leads Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
That'd have fallen foul of a relatively recent, restrictive festival rule that prevents the top prizewinner taking any additional awards -- introduced at some point after Gus van Sant's "Elephant" took the Palme and Best Director in 2003. (2000's "Dancer in the Dark," meanwhile, is the last Palme winner to take an acting award.) Moretti and his jury duly complied, but the awards carried an unavoidable whiff of compromise to them.
Only a year later, jury president Steven Spielberg appears to have found himself in the same situation, as the film that emerged as the buzz title of the festival on the eighth day of Competition – and duly won the Palme d’Or – was similarly performance-powered. To hand a prize to Abdellatif Kechiche’s remarkable romantic drama “Blue is the Warmest Color” without acknowledging the contribution of 19-year-old lead Adele Exarchopoulos would feel an oddly incomplete gesture. Not only a galvanizing presence on her own terms, the actress, together with co-star Lea Seydoux, was a committed and creative collaborator in its development, and the director has been insistent that he can’t claim sole ownership of the film.
Such was the hype at the festival surrounding Exarchopoulos’s breakout turn that, when Berenice Bejo was named the Best Actress winner for her very fine work in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” – a spiky, commendably unsympathetic turn that, prior to the premiere of “Blue,” had been the racing favorite for the award – the entire press room began composing their “Kechiche wins the Palme” headlines 15 minutes before the news was made official.
This is indicative of the critical conviction elevating Kechiche’s film by the end of a festival that didn’t want for worthy competition. If anything, the Coen Brothers’ morose folk-scene comedy “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which took the runner-up Grand Prix, was even more broadly liked – though there’s a sense in some quarters that the Coens, amply rewarded by Cannes in the past, can be taken for granted these days – which made this very popular win still somewhat surprising to me.
But if “Llewyn” was a hit, “Blue” was the kind of feverish phenomenon that can only occur at major festivals – however well it does upon release, it will probably never seem quite as mighty as it did in the days following its first screening. Such phenomena are almost always fueled by a degree of controversy, and for all its overriding tenderness and humanity, “Blue” had it: its lengthy, rawly explicit same-sex love scenes were a point of discussion and debate even before it screened, while its sympathetic anatomy of a homosexual relationship clearly hit home with the French media just one week after the country’s legalization of gay marriage. Its three-hour running time was by far the longest in Competition this year; the film could hardly have been positioned as more of a special snowflake in the lineup.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is now the most erotic film ever to take the Palme d’Or; it is also the first that might immediately be classified as queer. (Funnily enough, it lost the separately juried Queer Palme award to Alain Guiraudie’s even steamier gay-cruising thriller “Stranger by the Lake”; between those films and Steven Soderbergh’s superb Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” it’s been a vintage Cannes for LGBT-focused cinema.) But it also set a third precedent last night that was entirely the jury’s doing: with Spielberg’s team unable to give Best Actress to Exarchapoulos and/or Seydoux, they decided the actresses should at least get a Palme d’Or for their pains.
“Blue “ thus becomes the first film ever to have its Palme formally presented to more than just its director. It’s a sweet acknowledgement of a film made in a spirit of genuine collaboration – an anomaly from this most auteur-driven of festivals. It’s also a clever, somewhat cheeky way of defying a rule that Cannes brass should realize creates more problems than it solves. Rather shockingly, this means Exarchopoulos and Seydoux now join Jane Campion as the only women ever to accept a Palme d’Or. And if the festival’s current selection policy continues, it may be a while before a female filmmaker joins them – the less said about Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s weightless, tone-deaf comedy of One Percent manners “A Castle in Italy,” inexplicably the only female-directed film in Competition, the better.
Meanwhile, whether you think Exarchopoulos deserved her own award or not, it's hard not to be happy for Bejo, who may have received an Oscar nomination two years ago for "The Artist," but was written off by many as an insubstantial coattail candidate enjoying a brief moment in the sun. "The Past" proves her to be both a star presence and a dramatic actress of considerable grace and subtlety. If Sony Pictures Classics play their cards right, she could even return to the US awards circuit far sooner than most would have suspected. But even if they don't, this is a proud moment for the French-Argentinian actress. Leaving the press room after the ceremony, I walked past her husband, Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius, waiting patiently in the corridor while his wife basked in the lights of her photo call outside. It was a sweet sight -- I bet she had to do her own fair share of such waiting two years ago.