CANNES, France - The 69th Cannes Film Festival, which closed here Sunday, was marked by cheers and jeers for a broad range of international cinema.
The exception to the divided reception most films received was the awarding of the Palme D'Or, the festival's top honor, to Ken Loach for I, Daniel Blake. It was the second Golden Palm for the soon-to-turn-80 British director, whose body of work includes 20-some films. If few were knocked out by I, Daniel Blake, no one was put off by it, either, which made it a rarity this year.
Written by Loach's longtime collaborator Paul Laverty, the film is another example of "kitchen-sink realism" - socially motivated story lines about the strivings of the working and welfare classes to stay afloat. In the film, an injured 59-year-old carpenter denied worker's comp crosses paths with a thirty-something mother of two denied welfare benefits, as both shore each other up to do battle with British bureaucracy.
Accepting the award, Loach used the moment to assert that the world has been driven to the point of catastrophe by an austerity mentality, and that his cinema is meant to defend the defenseless. That's about as political as things got in the land of the azure sea and skies. Almost all of the remaining awards drew as many boos - often more - as yeas in the Salle Debussy, the press observation room for the telecast sent live all over Europe from Cannes' 2,300-seat Grande Theatre Lumiere.
An Iranian film, The Salesman, by Asghar Farhadi, won two awards, for its screenplay and its male lead. Shahab Hosseini plays a young actor starring as Willy Loman in a production of Death of a Salesman. His wife, playing Linda Loman, is assaulted in their new apartment by an older man come to settle a grievance with the previous tenant, a prostitute he loved. Farhadi's The Past debuted in Cannes in 2013, and his win in the competition this year, along with Loach's second, mirrors Cannes' devotion to directors it develops.
No Palm drew more razzes from the media than Quebec filmmaker Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World, which won the Grand Prix, or runner-up award. It's the story of a young man who returns home to tell his crazy family - played by Nathalie Baye, Vincent Kassel, Marion Cotillard, and Lea Seydoux - that he's going to die, but can't get a word in edgewise. The film was at the top of the media art-house flop list. Dolan's winning the second prize here this year seems to complete the perfect Cannes arc of progress embraced by the jury this year: He won third prize here two years ago with Mommy, about a crazy mother; and four years ago with Laurence Anyways, about heterosexual lovers cracking up over the male's transgendering to female.
The jury prize, the festival's third-most-prestigious award, went to American Honey, by Scottish-born Andrea Arnold, with Shia LaBeouf, newcomer Sasha Lane, and Riley Keough. It's a what's-happening-now-with-kids film, about a van full of lost 20-somethings traveling across the United States selling magazine subscriptions to a world that is no longer buying.
Australian director George Miller (the Mad Max franchise) presided over a jury composed of French director Arnaud Desplechin; actors Donald Sutherland (Canada), Valeria Golino (Italy), Mads Mikkelsen (Denmark), Kirsten Dunst (U.S.), and Vanessa Paradis (France); Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi; and Hungarian director László Nemes (of last year's Son of Saul).
Amazon Studios, a division of mail-order juggernaut Amazon, brought five films to the festival. All of them got overlooked at awards time, but are likely to draw attention at home. In Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson in Paterson, N.J., with a long-haired woman and a short-haired dog waiting at home in a wry, shaggy dog fable. Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, with Elle Fanning as an aspiring model in L.A., drew a chorus of boos.
Director Jeff Nichols' Loving, also shut out for awards, was embraced by most critics, however, as a highly effective retelling of a landmark 1950s Virginia civil-rights case that went to the Supreme Court and reversed a state ban on interracial marriage. It could be this year's Spotlight, but was lauded for being understated - no swelling soundtrack to cue when to cheer the arrival of justice. And it has simple, clean performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who were both shut out for acting awards.
Best actress instead went to Jaclyn Jose in Ma'Rosa, a movie by the usually hard-edged Philippine director Brillante Mendoza about a housewife who lands in a jail where justice is for sale.
On the high-profile front, Steven Spielberg's BFG, based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, went over with a thud. Woody Allen's Café Society - like Pedro Almodovar's entry, Julieta, which Sony will release later this year - is effortless and fizzy, pleasing and forgettable. It's set in 1930s Hollywood, with Jesse Eisenberg as a Brooklyn kid who comes to get a toehold with his uncle Phil, played by Steve Carell, a bigshot agent with a million-dollar everything, including a wistfully beautiful secretary from Kansas played by Kristen Stewart. Amazon is slated to release the film this summer.
One of the three films that scored best with critics was Toni Erdmann, a German comedy - words that few here ever thought they'd say - about a jokester father who spends his retirement making a hash of his corporate careerist daughter to save her soul. Sony Pictures Classics snapped it up for U.S. release.
The second film that drew universal raves was Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, about a doctor desperately trying to get his daughter out of Romania to England, where she has won a scholarship to Cambridge. A little toe-dipping into the country's post-Communist culture of corruption is both necessary and ultimately eviscerating. Mungiu, who won the Palme D'Or in 2007 for 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days, shared this year's best screenplay Palm with French director Olivier Assayas, for Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, who's made something of a career out of playing competent secretaries. IFC/Sundance Selects will release the film in the U.S.
The last film to play the festival was Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which was billed as "a rape comedy," which charmed critics - male and female alike. French actress Isabelle Huppert converts victimhood to just another management reversal as CEO of a video game company. It was like watching the French national pastimes - love and sex - played the way James Bond took on SMERSH: with a wink and a smile and a well-placed knee. It is likely to stir up a fuss when it gets released in the U.S. in the coming year by Sony Pictures Classics.