What does the 2011 Cannes Film Festival mean?

May 27, 2011

by Milos Stehlik

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(Getty Images/Ian Gavan)
Producers of 'Tree of Life' accepted the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

It is the biggest and the best film festival in the world. The deluge of daily film screenings is often overwhelming. There is simply no way to do one-one hundredth of the daily possibilities.

The end of this year’s festival was overshadowed by Lars von Trier’s run-away press conference commentary. But at least the sideshow produced one good result: von Trier has vowed to never again appear in front of a microphone. In modern movie star fashion, he also found a justification for his lack of self-control: he had recently quit drinking.

On Sunday night, the jury announced the awards. The jury was led by Robert de Niro and was weighted rather heavily by actors – Uma Thurman and Jude Law among them. The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick’s grand epic, won the Palme d’Or. It was the only right choice, given the immense scale of its ambition.

After Tree Of Life, we get into the weird politics of Cannes juries –– the horse-trading and compromises that we are sure are a part of the final roster of awards.

The 2011 Cannes Festival jury went for the obvious. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress for her role in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a film which was well positioned to win some kind of award for its direction – before, that is, Lars von Trier was declared “persona non grata” though the film remained in competition. Giving the prize to the actress rather than the film was a good compromise. Dunst is good in her role as a depressed newlywed. But in my mind, her performance hardly matches the nuanced performance of Tilda Swinton as a mother who simply doesn’t cope with her child, in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin  – a film that went home from the Cannes Competition empty-handed.

The Artist is a fun, campy, black-and-white French movie set in a mythologized Hollywood of the silent era. Popular French TV actor Jean Dujardin, received the Best Actor award. The Artist is a clever film, and Dujardin has a lot of fun with the role. But for me, the great performance this year belongs to Sean Penn in a film shown at the end of the Festival, This Must Be The Place, by Paolo Sorrentino. Penn clearly cherished the role and gives a funny and, at the same, riveting performance.

For the most part, this year’s Cannes Festival rewarded films or performances that were large-scale or obvious – there was little appreciation for subtlety. Aki Kaurismaki’s wonderful film, Le Havre, also went home prize-less.

The single courageous venture into new territory on the part of this year’s Cannes jury was giving the Best Director award to Nicolas Winding Refn for his American film, Drive. This very well-executed genre film about a Hollywood stunt driver by day and the criminal world’s driver-by-night is riveting to watch and pushes against genre conventions with style and emotion. The young Winding Refn is most certainly a major talent to watch; he is someone who has absorbed the syntax of the thriller and re-invents it in a new way, not unlike Quentin Tarantino did in his early films.

The exhaustive post-game analysis of the Cannes Film Festival is good for film. It gets films talked about. They take center stage. The sheer scale, number and diversity of the films at Cannes make it seem, if only for a moment, that film is the glue that holds together all the emotions of the universe. The lives of others become as important as our own. The fictional or semi-real characters become people we know. The hundreds of creative and technical people who help actualize these characters on the screen – who are all at Cannes – share the same Mediterranean air at Cannes as we do.

Most of all, the films connect us to hope and make us believe that if only enough people in the world would watch these films, the planet would be saved and would be a better, more equitable, just and peaceful place.