Gold is the Shiniest Color

It seems appropriate to take a moment to wrap up the Cannes Film Festival, having just arrived a few days ago in Scotland (close enough to France, right?) and with eyes on perhaps peeking in at the Edinburgh festival in a few weeks. This is one of those moments where it’s extremely frustrating to be an avid but penniless and non-credentialed filmgoer; as I eagerly lap up every review and update from the Croisette, I must always force myself to remember that these films won’t receive a U.S. release for months, if at all. Ah well.

This year’s Competition lineup appeared strong overall, with only a few boring duds (Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.”, Arnaud des Pallieres’ “Michael Kolhaas”) and one resoundingly derided misstep in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” Only two years removed from the massive success of “Drive” at Cannes, it’s shocking that Refn could do such an about-face with relatively similar material and the same leading man, but the director’s penchant for excessive blood-letting and narrative elision seems to have reached new, extreme heights. Word is that Ryan Gosling’s protagonist has even fewer lines than his reticent Driver, leaving viewers weary of scene after scene of ultra-violence with little emotional context. It’s a shame since the film is obviously impeccably photographed, but “Only God Forgives” seems more like a step back to the vacant brooding of “Valhalla Rising” than a continuation of the mixed arthouse/grindhouse grandeur of “Drive.”

However, that still left a wealth of options for Steven Spielberg’s jury, with the critical favorites being “The Past” (Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to “A Separation”), “Inside Llewyn Davis” (the Coens) and “Blue is the Warmest Color” (Abdellatif Kechiche). Much to the blogosphere’s pleasure, that’s pretty much exactly how the competition awards shook out:

Palme d’Or: “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche, Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux

Grand Jury Prize (unofficial second place): “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen

Best Director: Amat Escalante, “Heli”

Jury Prize (unofficial third place): “Like Father, Like Son,” Hirokazu Kore-eda

Best Screenplay: Jia Zhangke, “A Touch of Sin”

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”

Best Actress: Berenice Bejo, “The Past”

Camera d’Or (best debut feature in Competition, Un Certain Regard or Critic’s Week sidebar): “Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen

Particularly of interest here is the way Spielberg and crew set history and sidestepped a festival rule limiting the number of awards any one film can win by giving the Palme d’Or for “Blue is the Warmest Color” not only to the film’s director, but its two leading ladies as well. At the auteur-driven Cannes, this kind of recognition of artistic collaboration is unprecedented, but highly welcome (especially as it allowed for Exarchopoulos, Seydoux and Bejo all to receive proper acclaim). The film, an epic, three-hour long drama (adapted from a French graphic novel) of a teenaged girl’s budding romance with an older woman, raised quite a bit of critical discussion for its extended, frank sex scenes – if you thought Spielberg would shy away from more explicit material because of the PG-13 safety of his own films, think again – and will surely continue to be a hot topic of feminist and voyeurism debate when it eventually makes its way stateside (the titillating material and critical reception should be enough to get it a release, despite the running time). Also of note: as a result of the jury’s daring move, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux became only the second and third women to receive the Palme d’Or (after Jane Campion). Kudos to that in a year where female directors seemed once again unfairly sidelined (early complaints about the male-heavy Competition lineup were not quelled when Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” and Claire Denis’ “The Bastards” both garnered their share of fans in the Un Certain Regard sidebar).

Speaking of history, by taking the Grand Jury Prize, the Coen brothers become only the third person (yeah, we’re just counting them as one guy) to win the Palme d’Or, Best Director and Grand Jury Prizes from the festival, after Michael Haneke and Wim Wenders. “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks sure to be a popular awards player in the fall, so we’ll have plenty of opportunity to discuss them later.

Less assured of critical success is Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which got mixed reviews at the festival, mostly credited to an uneven script (Payne, for the first time, did not even collaborate on the screenplay he filmed). However, the mini-comeback for veteran Bruce Dern (Laura’s dad) got enough respect to take the Best Actor prize away from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon of Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” the more-buzzed performances. That’s slightly unfortunate, since “Behind the Candelabra” will be playing solely on HBO as a TV movie in America, and thus won’t qualify for the Oscars – but Douglas and Damon will almost surely have Emmys and Golden Globes to console themselves, and it’s not as if Dern is an unworthy upstart. In any case I look forward to catching up with Soderbergh’s film on HBO Go as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Mexican New Wave continues to do no wrong at Cannes, as Amat Escalante snapped up Best Director only a year after his mentor Carlos Reygadas received the same. The favorite for that prize, Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque, extravagant “The Great Beauty,” ended up going home empty-handed, as did James Gray’s well-received “The Immigrant” (which also might be able to find success in an Oscar run instead). Ditto, in fact, Jim Jarmusch’s Tilda Swinton/Tom Hiddleston vampire flick “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which got mixed notices but remains a fascinating and anticipated curio to me because, seriously, did I mention it’s a vampire movie with Tilda Swinton?

Any of these titles pique your interest, dear readers? “The Past” had no sooner debuted than Sony Pictures Classics picked it up, so at the moment only it, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (CBS Films), “Nebraska” (Paramount) “The Immigrant” (The Weinstein Company) have guaranteed theatrical distribution. I would expect “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Only God Forgives” (despite the critical panning) and “Only Lovers Left Alive” to not be far behind.

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