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Lesbians, Midwesterners and the Coen brothers highlight this year’s Cannes Film Festival

Léa Seydoux, Abdellatif Kechiche and Adèle Exarchopoulos of the Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Mike D'Angelo

No sooner had the jury rendered its verdict than the controversy began. Trial of the century? No, this year's Cannes Film Festival, at which a group of film professionals led by Steven Spielberg awarded the Palme d'Or (the festival’s top prize) to Blue Is the Warmest Color, an epic three-hour French lesbian romance adapted from a graphic novel (also French). For some critics—most notably the New York Times' Manohla Dargis—the movie's prolonged and explicit sex scenes, which appear to be essentially unsimulated, take the word "graphic" a bit too literally. But the movie, though directed by a man (Abdellatif Kechiche, whose fine previous films include The Secret of the Grain and Black Venus), depicts its two main female characters in far too much messy human detail to be justly accused of objectification. Bucking precedent, the Cannes jury handed the Palme not just to Kechiche but also to his actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, by way of acknowledging their immeasurable contribution—this even though the festival's spread-the-wealth rules required that Best Actress proper be given to somebody else. It was the perfect solution.

The somebody else in question, also quite deserving, turned out to be Bérénice Bejo, who made a splash just two years ago in The Artist. Her latest film—my own favorite at Cannes this year—is The Past, in which she plays a woman caught between her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Ali Mosaffa), who's flown to Paris from Tehran to finalize their divorce some four years after they split, and her fiancé (Tahar Rahim), who's technically still married to a woman in a coma. Written and directed by Iran's Asghar Farhadi, whose previous effort was the Oscar-winning masterpiece A Separation, The Past is another probing, labyrinthine examination of the fallout that occurs when a relationship ends; all three actors, including Bejo, are terrific, but the movie's true star is its hyper-intelligent, endlessly knotty screenplay, which confirms Farhadi as the heir apparent to such world-class dramatists as Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg. Sony Pictures Classics quickly snapped it up, so look for it to show up in theaters sometime this fall or winter.

Bérénice Bejo was honored at Cannes this year for her performance in <em>The Past</em>.

Bérénice Bejo was honored at Cannes this year for her performance in The Past.

Best Actor, which was widely expected to honor Michael Douglas' uncanny incarnation of Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, instead went to Bruce Dern, playing an addled senior who thinks he's won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and persuades his son (Will Forte) to drive him hundreds of miles to collect the cash. The film, Nebraska, is the latest from Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt), and while it sometimes makes cruel sport of its Midwestern yokels—a continuing problem in Payne's work since his shift from satire to dramedy—it also achieves a genuinely haunting pathos in its depiction of unfulfilled lives. (That it was shot in evocatively drab black-and-white doesn't hurt.) While Dern does fine work, though, I preferred Oscar Isaac as the testy title character in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, about a '60s folk singer who's his own worst enemy. The film won the Grand Prix (basically second prize) and received almost universal critical acclaim; I was all but alone in thinking that it goes astray and never fully recovers when Llewyn leaves New York for a road trip to Chicago.

On the flip side, I was far more enraptured than most by Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, which stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as centuries-old vampires who ... well, they don't really do much of anything, which is the problem for many. There's a mildly funny diversion in which Mia Wasikowska, playing the sister of Swinton's bloodsucker, causes some trouble, but for the most part the movie simply allows its two mournful yet impassioned protagonists to catalogue all the beauty they find in the world. That was enough for me—I found the first hour almost unbearably moving—and so, too, was the ultra-minimalist shipwreck drama All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford in a completely solo, nearly wordless role that's 100 percent action and reaction. We know absolutely nothing about his character—the movie begins after his ship has been rammed by a shipping container and taken on tons of water—but it doesn't matter in the slightest; the film, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), correctly understands that life or death situations have no need for backstory or manufactured emotional crises. Playing out of competition, All Is Lost wasn't eligible for any prizes, but it's exactly the kind of risk-taking experiment that international festivals like Cannes were created to showcase. Let's hope we Americans will embrace it, too.


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