Red carpeting was stacked in haphazard rolls in the internal corridors of the cavernous, and hideous, Palais des Festivals on Sunday night. A guy with a scraping tool was on his hands and knees, laboriously removing the L'Oréal sponsorship logo from the marble staircase between the third and fourth floors. Although the Croisette, the palm-lined beachfront boulevard extending east and west of the Palais, was still jammed with tourists, the front lawn of the Grand Hotel, noted at the height of the festival for its combination of high-level wheeler-dealers and dog shit (a coincidence, I assure you), was almost empty. Cannes was rapidly returning to its year-round identity as an overpriced retreat for the would-be fabulous.
By most accounts this has been a decent edition of the Cannes International Film Festival, but one without world-changing great films. I pretty much agree, but then, I've never been here before, so what the hell do I know? One American journalist who has been to Cannes 25 of the last 26 years told me that such is almost always the verdict, and that the festival's "great films" only start to look that way in the rearview mirror. Last year, Michael Haneke's sinister thriller "Caché" got quite a buzz going on the Riviera, but no one could have foreseen that it would become the hottest French film import to reach American screens in many a moon.
Whether it was great or mediocre, this year's festival certainly provided a sting in its tail. We all expected that a jury chaired by Wong Kar-wai, reigning demigod of the art-film universe, would violate orthodoxies and provide some surprises. But surprises come in different grades. When the Grand Prix, the jury's second-place prize, was awarded to French director Bruno Dumont's brutal, minimalist war drama "Flanders," a collective murmur, fairly close to a groan, arose in the press room. But honoring "Flanders," an oblique and audacious film that divided critics and alienated many viewers, might be called an expected surprise from this jury. (For the record, I'm with the minority who actually admired "Flanders," although it's a difficult film to enjoy.)
No one expected the surprise that arrived a few minutes later, when the Palme d'Or, Cannes' biggest prize, was awarded to a straightforward historical drama made by a 69-year-old English leftist. Even Ken Loach, the director of such Brit-indie classics as "Raining Stones" and "Riff-Raff," seemed startled by this turn of events, although he rose to the occasion gracefully. "I've forgotten all my French," he said (in perfectly passable French) to the throng inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière, "but it's wonderful to be here, at the very heart of world cinema."
Loach's film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," is an epic about Ireland in the 1920s, when the nation was forged in a revolution against British rule followed by a fratricidal civil war. Loach seemed eager to make sure that no one present would miss its potential contemporary relevance. "Our film is a very little step in the British confronting our imperial history," he continued in English. "If we tell the truth about the past, then maybe, maybe, we will tell the truth about the present."
Reviews of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" were generally respectful but mixed; I'm not aware of any critic who picked it as a major Palme d'Or contender. Wong, however, told a press conference after the Palmarès (the peculiar ritual recitation of the winners at the closing ceremony) that the jury's vote was unanimous and the selection took almost no time. "It was the first prize we decided this morning," he said. "We had one round of voting and we were done."
Actress Helena Bonham Carter, another jury member, said that Loach's film "shattered us. It was emotionally and viscerally moving." French director Patrice Leconte added that despite watching "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" on the first day of the festival, "it stayed in a corner of my heart during all the days afterward, as I watched other films, day by day. It never departed."
This award may demonstrate the universal tendency of film-festival juries, no matter who sits on them, to favor realistic dramas focused on social or political issues. Of course the jury members ritualistically denied that such were their criteria. "We choose these films by heart," said Wong. "We don't come to this with any bias or agenda."
Palestinian director Elia Suleiman became the official spokesman for this position, while fielding a question from an Arabic-language radio reporter about any parallels he saw between the '20s Irish struggle depicted by Loach and the contemporary situation of his own people. "My appreciation for this film was not about identifying with a political or social issue," he said. "It was a process of falling in love with Ken Loach's film. Let me say this: We were profoundly unsympathetic to subject matter. We wanted to talk about how the subject was addressed, how the story was told."
For me personally, this award illustrated another film-festival law: The movies you skip will come back to bite you in the ass. I bailed on an early-morning press screening of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" to go see something that sounded less dour, and never caught up with it (although I've since seen a 15-minute excerpt reel). This was both a personal and an aesthetic decision. Like many other people of Irish descent, I grew up with the film's events hanging over my family history like a shroud, and I'm pretty sick of them. Secondly, I prefer Loach in his British working-class realism mode to his earnest history-lecture mode; I expected "Barley" to be a lot like his Spanish Civil War film, "Land and Freedom," with rain and mournful pipe music instead of sunshine and flamenco.
With Andrea Arnold's debut feature "Red Road" -- a psychological thriller set in the housing projects of Glasgow -- winning the Jury Prize (essentially the third-place award), this was an extraordinary year at Cannes for British pictures. American movies were completely shut out of the Palmarès this year, but it's not like anyone was surprised: Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation" was a well-intentioned mess, Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" an irredeemable mess and Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (dubbed by one French newspaper "Barbie-Antoinette") a pretty but inert confection.
The main acting prizes were both awarded to ensembles, for the first time. Best Actress went to the six-woman principal cast (headed by Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura) of Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver," and Best Actor went to the five leading men of Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory" ("Indigènes" in French), which tells the story of Algerian solders who fought for de Gaulle's free French army in World War II. (Bouchareb also helped produce Dumont's "Flanders," so it was a big night for him.)
One could argue that the awards given to "Volver" -- Almodóvar also won for Best Screenplay -- fell somewhere between a snub and a consolation prize. Most observers in Cannes expected the Spanish director to win his first Palme d'Or (and Cruz to win Best Actress) after the rapturous reception given the film's premiere. Similarly, while Mexico's Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director for his globe-spanning drama of parental angst, "Babel," that film had also been a hot Palme d'Or pick. In fairness, while Almodóvar seemed subdued, he almost always does, and Iñárritu was clearly delighted, telling presenter Tim Burton that his kids would never believe he'd been on stage at Cannes with the director of "Beetlejuice" and "Batman."
In the Un Certain Regard competition, generally reserved for smaller and artier films, the prize went to "Luxury Car," Wang Chao's precisely realized social drama of life in contemporary China. It's a fine film, but in no way daring or unorthodox; it could just as easily have belonged in the main competition. The Caméra d'Or, for the best first film seen in any of the interlinked Cannes festivals, went to the comedy "12:08 East of Bucharest," from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, which screened in the Directors' Fortnight. (I didn't see it.)
Perhaps the only thing more startling than Loach's Palme d'Or was the list of films that went totally unmentioned, either during the Palmarès or the subsequent press conference. The jury members had plenty of opportunity to discuss favorite films they couldn't quite find awards for; we heard about how much Tim Roth loved Chinese director Lou Ye's "Summer Palace," and how much Samuel L. Jackson was affected by Giacomo Rizzo's performance as a cynical loan shark in Paolo Sorrentino's "The Family Friend." Everybody waxed eloquent about Portuguese director Pedro Costa's "Colossal Youth," a docudrama set amid the African immigrant population of Lisbon.
But nobody brought up Israel Adrián Caetano's political thriller "Buenos Aires 1977" or Guillermo del Toro's fairytale of fascist Spain, "Pan's Labyrinth," even though those, along with "Volver," were probably the most buzzed-over pictures among the press corps. If the atmosphere at the press conference wasn't exactly hostile -- after all, this was a roomful of entertainment reporters facing a gaggle of celebrities -- it possessed some other, less definite, quality. Mystification, maybe. It was as if the questions we really wanted to ask Wong, Roth, Jackson, Leconte, Suleiman, Monica Bellucci and company were: Why have you ignored our expert advice? Or: How dare you remind us that all our hard-earned gossip and punditry don't mean anything?
As another monotonously gorgeous day broke the next morning in the eastern sky over Nice, I woke up with the idea that the celebrity panel had made the critics and reporters uncomfortable because they reminded us too much of regular viewers. Former New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed years ago that the film critic's pose of being an ordinary moviegoer is just that. You can't watch 100 or 150 or 200 films a year and be an ordinary moviegoer; you become a specialist with a defined aesthetic and rarefied tastes in some direction or other. Whether that direction lies in Thai kickboxing films or Tarkovsky-esque meditations on the soul is purely a question of temperament.
So our relationship with the ordinary moviegoer -- perhaps especially when the "ordinary moviegoer" is Wong Kar-wai or Samuel L. Jackson -- is fraught with tension. We make merciless sport of "The Da Vinci Code," and ordinary moviegoers in France and America and every other nation on the planet stand in line by the millions. We dismiss an earnest epic about the Irish revolution as the same old, same old, and Tim Roth has, in his words, "a complete weeper."
I still believe that "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Volver" were the best movies in competition here, and that, ultimately, audiences will agree. But when you start seriously pondering such things -- even when you haven't seen the prize-winning film -- you've been in Cannes too long. It's time to pack the sunscreen, wash the salt out of your hair and the dog shit off your shoes, and go home.