Cannes, the final day: Britain’s Loach wins Palme for ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Hayley Squires and Dave Johns in "I, Daniel Blake."
Hayley Squires and Dave Johns in “I, Daniel Blake.”

 

In a big surprise, Britain’s Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival Sunday evening, his second after 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”

And in yet another surprise, the highly divisive “It’s Only the End of the World” from French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan took the grand prix, or second prize, while the critical favorite, “Toni Edmann,” by Germany’s Maren Ade was shut out. Also missing from the award winners were two highly acclaimed American films, Austin director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.”

“The Salesman” from Iran’s Asghar Farhadi took best screenplay and best actor, for Shahab Hosseini. Best director was shared between Romania’s Cristian Mungiu for “Graduation” and France’s Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper,” another highly divisive film that starred Kristen Stewart.

Britain’s Andrea Arnold won third place, the jury prize, for the American-set “American Honey,” while Jaclyn Jose of Brillante Mendoza’s “Ma’ Rosa” won best actress. The latter was also a surprise, since Isabelle Huppert wowed critics with her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s thriller “Elle.”

The Camera d’Or, which goes to first-time directors, went to “Divines,” which played in Directors’ Fortnight.

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The ceremony capped a contentious festival, where many critics voiced strong opinions about the competition entries. The biggest victim of the annual barrage of vitriol was Sean Penn’s “The Last Face,” which ended up getting the lowest score in history from the critics featured in the British trade journal Screen International. It got only 1 star from two critics, and the rest gave it an “X,” or “F.”

Loach’s Palme winner, however, was in the middle of the critical pack. It has an overt political message, criticizing the bureaucracy that administers the British welfare system. It stars Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, a pensioner who faces loss of payments, and Hayley Squires as Katie, a single mother of two who is befriended by Daniel after she, too, loses battles with the welfare bureaucracy.

It’s a very touching, humanistic tale, as most of Loach’s movies are. But it treads dangerous ground in almost becoming too preachy — a turnoff for most critics. Still, it has heart, and Loach is a veteran, beloved filmmaker in Cannes.

Dolan’s victory was greeted with boos in the press audience. But his movie, which deals with a gay man who goes home to tell his family that he is dying,  has been far underrated by critics, some of whom deride the 27-year-old for his early success. He first appeared in Cannes when he was only 19 and has become Canada’s filmmaking prodigy.

It’s too early to say which films from Cannes will be contenders for an Oscar. Certainly, Iran’s “The Salesman” should be among the best foreign language Oscar contenders, if Iran chooses to submit it. Variety and other American outlets have been predicting that Nichols’ “Loving” will also be an Oscar contender.

Cannes Day 10: Two fine movies close out competition

Isabelle Huppert gives a wicked performance in "Elle."
Isabelle Huppert gives a wicked performance in “Elle.”

Two fine but very different movies — Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” and Asghar Farad’s “The Salesman” — closed out the competition this weekend for the Palme d’Or in Cannes. And either one could get a major prize.

First, let’s talk about the deliciously evil and perverse “Elle.” Verhoeven, who brought “Basic Instinct” to Cannes in 1992, is back with another tale of a woman in danger who is also dangerous.

This time, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Huppert as Michele, a video game company founder in Paris who is raped by a man in a black ski mask in her luxurious home at the beginning of the film. Michele doesn’t act the way you might think. Once the rapist leaves, she calmly cleans up the broken glass from the floor. Then she takes a hot bath, not crying, just going about cleaning up in a methodical way.

She doesn’t call the police. At first, she doesn’t even tell anyone. She goes to work the next day and pretends nothing happened while giving instructions to her employees about how to build the suspense in a violent video game.

We slowly discover why Michele has an aversion to going to the police, and why she’s so determined to stay in control of life. When she was a child, her father went on a killing spree in Paris, and after the massacre, he came back home and asked his girl to help burn up the family possessions. She did, and as her father was being arrested, she was photographed in front of the fire, with ashes on her face. Ever since, she has been associated with the murders and has fought hard to build a prosperous life.

The rapist has her cell number and starts texting her, and she suspects that the perp might be someone who works for her. But we’re kept guessing.

She has a loser son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who works at a fast-food joint. The husband whom she divorced is named Richard (Charles Berling), and he’s a frustrated writer. Her best friend is Anna (Anne Consigny), who co-founded the game company with Michele. And her next-door neighbors are the stockbroker Patrick (Laruent Lafitte) and his religious wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira).

All of these characters are introduced with skill by Verhoeven, but the movie centers on Huppert’s Michele, who is in every scene.

The movie is full of suspense, irony and, surprisingly, many laugh-out loud moments. Most of these come from Michele’s bluntness about those around her, and her peculiar take on life — that she’s going to live her life in freedom and not be constrained by societal norms.

In no way does the movie suggest that she’s come to terms or is OK with the rape, as some have suggested. Far from it. She plots to figure out who the rapist is, and then she carefully maneuvers the man, who knows that his identity has been discovered. And rather than immediately turn him in to police, she begins a rather unnerving game. It’s not a revenge thriller, necessarily, although you might end up interpreting it that way. But there’s more ambiguity than you might think. And the movie is very French. It’s hard to imagine anyone except, perhaps, Sharon Stone, playing such a role in an American film.

Huppert does so with wry glee. There’s a disturbing glint in her eye, and you come to understand that she’s completely amoral, in an almost scary way. But that’s why the movie is deliciously perverse. Huppert and Verhoeven are a great team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t walk away with the best actress prize at Sunday’s awards ceremony. Her main competition: Ruth Negga of Austin director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” or possibly Kristen Stewart of “Personal Shopper.”

Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in "The Salesman."
Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in “The Salesman.”

The other late standout in Cannes is Iran’s “The Salesman,” which follows the fate of Rana (Taraneh Aliodoosti) and her husband  Emad (Shahab Hosseini). The two work at a local school, and both are starring in a play, Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman.” One day, Rana thinks the person ringing her high-rise bell below is her husband, coming home from practicing the play, and she buzzes the caller in without asking. She starts to shower, but ends up being attacked by an intruder. She hits her head on the bathroom glass and goes unconscious, and neighbors discover her lying on the floor as the intruder runs down the steps.

When Emad gets home, he discovers that his wife is in the hospital, possibly with a concussion. But his wife won’t tell Emad exactly what happened. He suspects the worst, possibly a sexual assault, but his wife refuses to discuss the matter. She’s scared, and she doesn’t want to stay in the apartment any more.

While Rana tries to return to normalcy, her husband becomes obsessed with finding the attacker. It turns out that the man left his keys to his truck, a cellphone and some money behind. And Emad finds the truck and waits for the owner to come back to claim it, planning on a confrontation.

To say much more would give away some key plot points, but the director, whose previous films include “The Past” and “A Separation,” is masterful at building tension between the wife and husband, leading us to wonder where all of this will go.

With the premieres of “Elle” and “The Salesman,” the race for the major prizes on Sunday becomes more complicated. Some think “American Honey,” from British director Andrea Arnold, will score big. Others think Nichols’ “Loving” has a shot at a major prize. Some, including me, think Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” has to be among the contenders. And it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Germany’s Maren Ade become the second woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “Toni Erdmann.” Jane Campion is the only other woman who has won such an honor in Cannes, for “The Piano.”

There are several people, mainly among the European press, who think Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” starring Stewart, will be among the award winners. And it would not be a surprise to see Kleber Mendonca Filho of Brazil win something for his Brazilian tale of a widow fighting a corrupt developer in “Aquarius.” And, no, you can’t rule out the Dardenne brothers, who premiered “The Unknown Girl” and are longtime Cannes favorites.

Sunday should be interesting.

Tonight, the winner of Un Certain Regard, the prestigious sidebar event, will be named.

 

Cannes Day 10: 5 reasons why Sean Penn’s ‘The Last Face’ is a disaster

Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron in "The Last Face."
Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron in “The Last Face.”

 

Sean Penn told the Financial Times that he had a lot riding on the Cannes premiere of his new directorial effort, “The Last Face.” If he was counting on gaining support in Cannes for his film, he’s in a lot of trouble. It was one of the worst receptions of a film I’ve ever seen in Cannes, and he still has to do a press conference later in the day. Here are a few reasons why the movie failed so badly.

  1. Here’s a film about the ravages of war in Africa, mainly in Liberia and the South Sudan. But unlike last  year’s “Beasts of No Nation,” there are no significant roles for black people.
  2. Instead, Penn focuses his story on a love affair between two doctors who work in refugee camps. They’re played by Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, and the central argument in their relationship is whether they could do more good at the United Nations in Switzerland or helping the wounded in Africa. Theron’s character prefers the halls of the U.N., while Bardem prefers the camps. They argue and argue. But the dialogue is dreadful. And most of the words spoken in the film are mumbled voiceovers.
  3. The supporting cast is equally awful, including poor Jean Reno, who utters some of the most ridiculous lines ever penned for the screen.

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  4. The movie features lots of surgeries, with an approach that almost seems like war-wound porn. We see legs being chopped off. We see a Caesarean section done in the jungle, on a woman who has had her throat slit. We see gaping wounds in legs and stomachs and elsewhere. It’s rather clear that Penn is trying to show us the horrors of war, but he goes too far.
  5. The movie is so didactic that it ends with a lecture, given by Theron at a gathering of philanthropists, where she talks of the dreams of refugees and how they’re just like us. But lets make this clear: While Penn’s intentions might be good and warm-hearted, his movie is woefully tone-deaf. Cannes is the temple of art films, and there’s an artful way to tell the tragic story of African wars. See the aforementioned “Beasts of No Nation.” This is didacticism at its worst. It’s hard to believe that Penn, who has been known for his philanthropic works, hasn’t been warned about the “white savior” complex. But he walks right into it in “The Last Face.” He might want to return to acting.

Cannes Day 8: Five more weird moments at the festival

 

Julia Roberts on the red carpet in Cannes. (Getty Images)
Julia Roberts on the red carpet in Cannes. (Getty Images)

Cannes is always full of odd happenings and strange controversies. Here are few to savor:

  1. At the screening of “Carol” last year, keepers of the red carpet prevented women who were wearing flats to walk the stairs. Heels are supposed to be mandatory, and men must wear tuxes. But last year’s huff caused a couple of funny moments this year. Susan Sarandon, who is always outspoken, reportedly wore flats on her trip up the carpet. And Julia Roberts, who was here for the “Money Monster” screening, took off her heels and walked barefoot. It was probably more a matter of practicality than protest.
  2. After getting booed at a press screening of “Personal Shopper,” Kristen Stewart and director Olivier Assayas received a standing ovation at the official premiere at the Palais. Still, the jury is out on the film. Two critics, one from France’s Liberation and the other from Russia’s Afisha, gave the movie an “X,” which translates to F.
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  3. Lots of disputes still surround British director Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” which was shot in the U.S. and features mostly unknown actors, except for Shia LaBeouf. A Variety critic speculated that it could be a contender for the Palme d’Or. But others still dismiss the film as overlong and repetitive. It features a group of kids going around the country, selling magazine subscriptions. They have lots of sex, do a lot of drugs, and get drunk no matter the time of day. It offers a fairly dim view of young adulthood in America, And some Americans have been huffy that Arnold is misrepresenting life in the States. That’s not my concern. At nearly three hours, it’s simply too long and repetitive for me. Sasha Lane of Texas has the starring role, even though she’s a newbie to the film scene. She was reportedly discovered on a scouting trip by Arnold’s team to Panama City, Fla., during spring break.
  4. With all the glitz and glamour of the south of France, you’d think you might be able to go two weeks without thinking of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson. You’d be wrong. Robertson is in town to sell his new movie, “Torchbearer,” which had a screening in the market, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The trade daily reported that the poster for the film “shows Robertson clutching a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, with a tagline that reads, ‘When man stops believing in God, he’ll believe in anything.’ ” He also reportedly misses Miss Kay’s cooking and predicts he’ll lose weight while here. No quiche for this dude.
  5. Since 2001, a group of dog lovers have picked the best performance by a canine in Cannes, and this year’s frontrunner is the English bulldog from Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.” The bulldog plays a crucial role in the film’s plot and makes all sorts of weird noises throughout the movie. The dog’s name is Nellie, although he’s in a transgender male role in “Paterson.” And if the dog wins, she won’t be able to accept the honor. She died a couple of months ago, says the “Paterson” star Adam Driver. Rest in peace, Nellie.

Cannes Day 6: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’ takes human approach to historic civil rights case

Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton talk about "Loving" in Cannes.
Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton talk about “Loving” in Cannes.

 

Austin director Jeff Nichols takes a thankfully quiet approach to what was once a controversial topic in “Loving,” which details the battle to legalize interracial marriage in the United States.

Instead of presenting people arguing about ideas and politics, he instead starts to film slowly, showing a romance between Richard and Mildred Loving, who hold hands, kiss and live quietly in a racially diverse Virginia community. Richard (Joel Edgerton) works in construction and hangs out with African-Americans on the drag race circuit. He’s good. And his car usually wins.

One day, Richard decides to ask Mildred to marry him, and they drive to D.C. to do the deed. Then they go back to their rural Virginia home and try to start a family. No politics. No ideology. No debates. Just love.

It’s a crucial strategy, because what eventually happens to them seems so far out of the norm of what’s right. They’re arrested and eventually told that they can’t live together as man and wife in the state of Virginia. So they move to D.C. and live there for a few years. But Mildred worries about her children not having any green space to play, and she pleads with Richard to move back home. She also writes a letter about her plight to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who forwards the note to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Neither Richard nor Mildred is a firebrand. Each wants to live quietly and raise a family. But when push comes to shove, Mildred is more of a mover and shaker than Richard, thinking that their case might actually help other people in similar situations. The ACLU agrees, and the case goes to the Supreme Court, which issued a historic 1967 ruling that marriage was an inherent right.

As Nichols said after the screening, he wanted to tell the story, “to get to the heart of this,” by just focusing on the people, Richard and Mildred. He added that many political debates today seem to revolve around ideas rather than people — and that people are at the center of these stories.

“I wanted to make a movie about two people in love, not a courtroom drama,” he said. “This is the quiet film of the year, and I hope it makes people think.”

As Mildred, Negga is brilliant. She has an easy smile, an humble bearing, but also has resolve. As Richard, Edgerton tries to contain his emotions, do his work and be cautious about making any kind of statement other than he loves his wife.

Nichols pointed out that the Supreme Court can do only so much, and that such cases take a while to play out in the rest of the nation, in part because of fears.

He said he hopes “Loving” will at least remind folks that real people are at the center of all these debates, and that if we can understand them, then maybe we can accept our differences.

That seems like a simple message. Maybe “Loving” will figure into the awards season and continue the discussion later this year.

Cannes Day 4: Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’ is fine, but curiously lacking the expected emotional heft

"The BFG"
“The BFG”

Steven Spielberg, who premiered the classic “E.T.” in Cannes, is back again with “The BFG,” a charming but not quite great film based on the Roald Dahl story about a little girl who is kidnapped by a friendly giant from a London orphanage.

The movie has all the trappings of great story, filled with spectacular visual effects and nice messages for families and children. The little but plucky orphan Sophie (is there any other kind in the movies?) dares to stay up past the witching hour, when ghosts and dreamy creatures roam the streets. Played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill, Sophie accidentally sees a giant roaming the streets, and he knows that he can’t let her stay in London, because she might tell people of his existence. So he plucks her from the bed where she’s hiding and takes her to Giant Country.

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As the giant, Oscar winner Mark Rylance has to perform through motion-capture technology, but he does a fine job, making the creature endearingly dim and lovable. He’s also like Sophie in some ways. In Giant Country, he’s an outcast because he’s not as big as the other giants. And he’s a vegetarian. The other giants like to eat people.

So the Big Friendly Giant has to hide Sophie from the rest of the gang, but they have big noses and can smell her presence.

At first, Sophie keeps trying to escape but realizes rather quickly that she’s found a kindred spirit. In fact, the giant takes Sophie on adventures in dreamland, where the BFG captures various types of dreams and keeps them stored in bottles back at his home.

But things go awry when the other giants decide they must find Sophie and be rid of her. So Sophie and the BFG have to hatch a plan: They’ll go visit the queen of England (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) and warn her that the giants might be responsible for the snatching multiple children across the land. It helps that they can release a dream into Buckingham Palace that supports the dire warning.

After an initial hesitancy, Sophie gets the BFG to reveal himself outside the queen’s bedroom window, and before long, everyone is having breakfast in a grand ballroom. And it’s this scene that will probably leave children laughing out loud. It turns out that the BFG has brought along his favorite fizzy drink, where the bubbles go down rather than up. And this causes much flatulence. Yes, the queen takes a sip, and there’s a bit of an unseemly incident.

The aim is to get the queen to launch a raid into giant land and save England. You can probably guess that they’re successful, especially since this is one of the most beloved children’s tales of modern times.

The optimism, a Spielberg trademark, comes through loud and clear. But there’s something missing emotionally between the giant and the girl. It’s not up to the same level of that in “E.T.” Then again, most movies can’t match “E.T.” in that regard.

At a press conference after the screening in Cannes on Saturday, Spielberg said that the making of “The BFG” brought back feelings he had as a young filmmaker, and he noted that he had read the book to his children when they were growing up. “This is probably the closest I’ve come to telling a love story,” he added.

He continued to stress that he hoped people responded to the overall message of “The BFG,” and that audiences realize that such movies “give us hope to fight on for another day.”

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