The Cannes Film Festival 2011: Final report

Dave Calhoun rounds up the 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Kirsten Dunst picked up the Best Actress award for her turn in 'Melancholia' Kirsten Dunst picked up the Best Actress award for her turn in 'Melancholia'

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Cannes hotel room of Kirsten Dunst, the latest Hollywood actor to be sucked into Lars von Trier’s arthouse flytrap and have their vanity gobbled up by the spider of false controversy. Here she was, reliving the disastrous reception of ‘Marie Antoinette’ at the 2006 festival all over again. All it took was a misguided ramble from her director about Germany, Hitler and Jews at a press conference for his new film for the world to confirm that the Danish filmmaker is addicted to controversy and the Cannes Film Festival, with not a little Gallic pomposity, to decide that he was persona non grata. Anyone wondering if von Trier is really such a naughty boy should look at his press conference online to decide if this was anything more than an improvised, mildly provocative and unfunny ramble in the spotlight.

Anyway, a spell in the wilderness might do wonders for von Trier’s mojo. With all this chat, you might think his new film, ‘Melancholia’, is worth talking about. Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters, Justine and Claire, with different attitudes to life and the impending apocalypse: Justine is resigned and passive; Claire is nervy and weepy. Everything unfolds at or after a wedding at a country house at some undefined, presumably American location. The film is a big, glossy, cod-metaphysical raspberry. Everything interesting is in the first eight minutes, as we’re treated to a montage of images of the end of the world, set to Wagner, that presage everything that unfolds later in a more clumsy style. The imagery is as captivating as the script is wonky. It didn’t end so badly for Dunst: Robert De Niro’s jury gave her the Best Actress prize.

'A vintage year'

Overall, this was a vintage Cannes, and it was always destined to be special, with new work from some of film’s heavyweight artists – Pedro Almodóvar, Terrence Malick, the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismäki, Nuri Bilge Ceylan – and fresh work from some of film’s most exciting younger Turks, like Lynne Ramsay and Paolo Sorrentino. Most of the big auteurs delivered, although I’d exclude from that gang Italian director Nanni Moretti and his weak ‘Habemus Papam’, which sees Michel Piccoli as a newly elected Pope throwing a wobbly and which squanders a nicely serio-comic early section in favour of whimsy.

Most of the big guns at Cannes were reconfirming their artistry, not redefining it. Fans of Almodóvar were served up a high-camp, gender-bending and bolshy narrative and some exquisite photography with ‘The Skin I Live in’, which is more ‘Broken Embraces’ than ‘Volver’: it shares his last film’s more muted colours, steely tone and thrillingly knotty storytelling. Antonio Banderas plays a wealthy, suave plastic surgeon who reacts to the loss of his wife and daughter by taking the knife to his troubles. The less said the better, but once again Almodóvar manages to turn the ridiculous into the sublime. It’s a shame the jury overlooked it – but in such a good year, you can understand that call.

'No prizes for Kaurismäki'

A shame, too, that Aki Kaursimäki’s ‘Le Havre’ went home empty handed. True, we’re familiar with the Finn’s staccato, shadowy, colour-coded stylings (‘The Man Without a Past’, ‘Drifting Clouds’), but he puts them to great use for a big-hearted story about an author (André Wilms) working as a shoeshiner in the port and dealing with a sick wife (Kati Outinen), a stowaway (Blondin Miguel) and a cop (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) straight out of noir central casting. It’s a film full of goodwill towards life and cinema.

You could say Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (twice winners of the Palme d’Or for ‘Rosetta’ and ‘The Child’) are in familiar territory too with ‘The Kid with a Bike’, but this is as wise, simple and thrilling as anything the brothers have made. Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a 12 year old at sea in urban, working-class Belgium. Unwanted by his father (Jérémie Renier), he’s taken in by a hairdresser (Cécile de France) who tries her best to keep him on the straight and narrow. The Dardennes hone their brand of essential realism almost to perfection, and give their lead a moving dignity by the time we arrive at a transcendent finale.

The Dardennes shared the festival’s Grand Prix (its second prize) with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (‘Uzak’, ‘Climates’) for his sixth film, ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’. The title hints at a new interest in storytelling and words for Ceylan after the often-silent observations of his previous films. But this portrait of a night and day in the life of a murder investigation in rural Turkey is crafty, rigorous filmmaking that demands we keep our eyes and ears open. Slowly its ensemble approach narrows our interest to one or two characters whose lives are illuminated by the job in hand. There’s horror and comedy alongside staggering imagery. Ceylan invites us along for a long ride, and if we’re up for it, it’s rewarding. It was the best film in a competition of so many strong films.

'Malick scoops the Palme d'Or'

Alongside Ceylan, the other filmmaker who was challenging his past self was Terrence Malick (‘Badlands’, ‘The Thin Red Line’), whose film, ‘The Tree of Life’, had a one-way ticket to the Palme d’Or and no one on De Niro’s jury dared to derail the train. Only his fifth movie in 38 years, this is a vast temple of a film, wide-reaching in its ambition to capture the spirit of life, the universe and everything in a trippy survey of all humanity from the viewpoint of a family (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and others) in ’50s Texas. The family element is fractured and poetic, and the most recognisably ‘Malick’ in flavour. But the film stretches itself to include dinosaurs, the Big Bang and Sean Penn (playing one of the family, grown up) wandering in the modern desert. Unapologetically personal and bold, it’s as far from minimalist cinema as you can get. I found its more happy-clappy, spiritual leanings hard to take, but it’s a ride which I’d happily jump onboard again.

Some of the strongest films at this year’s Cannes brought smiles to the face. ‘The Artist’ is a hymn to cinema from French director Michel Hazanavicius, who previously made the French ‘OSS 117’ Bond spoofs. It tells the tragi-romantic story of a 1920s movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who falls from grace as the talkies give life to stars like Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). The story is fun, but the telling is magnificent: Hazanavicius frames his entire film as a black-and-white silent movie, complete with title cards and a 1:33 ratio. Dujardin’s charming performance deserved the Best Actor prize.

Comedy, of sorts, won Israeli film ‘Footnote’ the Best Screenplay prize for an angsty, biting study of a rivalry between father and son academics. I found some of its music overbearing and some of its storytelling quirks a bit brash, but its performances and writing offer a rare meeting of the genuinely smart and funny.

The director of ‘Footnote’, Joseph Cedar, joined French actor-director Maïwenn (‘Polisse’), Australian first-timer Julia Leigh (‘Sleeping Beauty’), our own Lynne Ramsay (‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’), Italian maverick Paolo Sorrentino (‘This Must Be the Place’), Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (‘Drive’) and Austrian casting director turned filmmaker Markus Schleinzer (‘Michael’) as the younger talents in the competition.

'Silverwear for Nicolas Winding Refn'

I reviewed the films of those first three last week, and it’s sad to report that Ramsay’s film won nothing. Of the others, ‘Drive’ is a flashy but haltingly fun ’80s B-movie throwback from the director of the ‘Pusher’ films, starring a dead-behind-the-eyes Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver in LA sucked into a world of organised crime, while ‘Michael’ is a promising study of a child kidnapper from a first-time Austrian in the visual mould of early Haneke (even if it didn’t have the ideas to match).

Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘This Must Be the Place’ sees Sean Penn as Cheyenne, an ageing Robert Smith-alike rocker living in Dublin who heads back to America when his father falls ill. Once there, he hits the road in search of a Nazi who made his father’s life hell during the war. The film was a disappointment after ‘Il Divo’, but an amusing and inventive one, and full marks to Sorrentino and Penn for eccentricity. In another year, it would have been a talking point, but by the time it screened, we’d become used to follies and Nazis, humour and ideas, poetry and prose. Only at Cannes could a film featuring Penn in lipstick seem like just another movie.

See our entire archive of Cannes 2011 reviews here