Film

Cannes 2016: The Verdict of 'The Nine-Headed Beast' (and the Verdict on the Verdict)

Palme d'Or winner, I, Daniel Blake

Cannes 2016 was distinguished by a range of strong films, but the decisions of this year’s Competition jury felt more politically than artistically motivated.

Summing up last year’s Festival de Cannes. I quoted the Un Certain Regard Jury president Isabella Rossellini’s comment that the experience of the festival felt like taking “a flight over our planet” that “any anthropologist” would envy. Rossellini’s description holds good for this year too, since the global scope of Cannes remains one of its principal attractions, subverting the knee-jerk kvetching about diversity that’s now pretty much de rigueur at any cultural event.

While Cannes 2016 boasted its share of duds and disappointments (including Sean Penn’s thoroughly face-Palmed The Last Face), the overall feeling was that the festival offered one of the strongest line-ups of recent years. (“Ah, but think of last year!” one nostalgically-inclined critic said to me on the final day. “Mountains May Depart! Our Little Sister! Son of Saul! Carol! Now, those were good movies!”)

For me, the finest films at this year’s festival were as follows: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s quietly searing doc Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy, Jim Jarmusch’s perfectly pitched poem of a movie Paterson, Alain Guiraudie’s superbly confounding Staying Vertical, Hirokazu Kore-eda beautifully tender After The Storm, Spielberg’s supremely loveable The BFG, Park Chan-wook’s dazzling The Handmaiden, Pablo Larrain’s stylish, surprising Neruda, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, and Juho Kuosmanen’s delightful The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, with a bonus point to Jeff Nichols’ flawed but perceptive and admirably low-key Loving.

These films spanned so many countries and cultures, perspectives and languages (including "Gobblefunk") that they sum up, collectively, what remains so great about Cannes: namely, it’s reminder that film is an international medium: a fact that can be too easily forgotten due to continued US dominance of the marketplace. As Bilge Ebiri noted at The Village Voice: “It’s touching to see such hubbub over things like three-hour Romanian art films, and to see a new Alain Guiraudie movie on the massive screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere.”

That being said, the uneasy sense that far too many of the Competition films this year were by established Cannes pet auteurs, who were guaranteed a place at the festival regardless of quality, was reflected in the decisions of the George Miller-headed Jury, with the Palme d’or going to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Grand Prix to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World, and the Jury Prize to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.

Mediocre or muddled efforts all, the award of the top prize to Loach looked particularly like a politically rather than an artistically motivated choice: the result of a privileged Jury clearly demonstrating their sympathy for “the poor”. Strong to start (as a black comedy about bureaucracy) but let down by its sentimental and schematic second half, Loach’s movie may have its heart in the right place but it’s far from the director’s finest work. Still, for all its shortcomings, I’d rather see I, Daniel Blake take the Palme than Maren Ade’s bizarrely adored father/daughter “comedy” Toni Erdmann, which many thought to be a shoo-in for the top prize, but which -- thankfully -- went away empty-handed.

There were surprises in the directing and acting categories, too, particularly the win for Olivier Assayas (who shared the former prize with Cristian Mungiu for Graduation) for his enjoyable but divisive Personal Shopper, and the Best Actress prize going to Jaclyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa rather than to Sonia Braga for her stunning display as the vibrant widow in Aquarius.

While it’s all too easy to complain about favorite films and performances getting overlooked, the fact remains that the competitive element in these events is generally a farce, and responses to the same films differ so much that it’s hard to see how the Jury ever reaches any kind of consensus. Moreover, in the case of Cannes it feels like the Jury -- which Miller likened (affectionately, one hopes) to a “nine-headed beast” -- are being further compromised by their inability to award a film in more than one category.

For me, the antidote to the Cannes hype and hustle came in the shape of the last film I saw at the festival: Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which was the winner of the Un Certain Regard prize. A black-and-white Finnish boxing film, that, in its gentleness and wry humor, soon establishes itself as the anti-Raging Bull. The film’s focus on a fighter (Jarkko Lahti) who’s more concerned with love than the limelight made the movie feel more subversive than any of the brasher, more overtly “political” efforts presented at Cannes this year. It’s to be hoped that the Festival will continue to open up to more fresh voices and visions such as Kuosmanen’s, rather than falling back on favorite, established names, when it reaches its milestone 70th year in 2017.

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