Tree of Life Wins Palme D’Or

Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, was awarded the Palme d'Or, Cannes' highest prize, on Sunday. From Ryan Gosling's neo-noir film to Tilda Swinton as a suburban mom, Richard Porton on the highlights of the Festival.

05.21.11 10:14 PM ET

When the Cannes Competition jury announced its awards on Sunday, the results proved much more intriguing than the Academy Awards, the nearest American equivalent of the film festival’s prestigious prizes. While Hollywood takes delight in honoring moneymaking crowd pleasers such as The King’s Speech, Tree of Life, a risky film with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt  which received mixed reviews, surprised critics on Sunday when it was awarded the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor. Last year’s winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, was a whimsical example of Thai magical realism that has only screened in specialized cinemas in the United States. (It proved a box office hit in cinephilic Paris, however.) Whereas the Oscars invariably distribute awards to uncontroversial entertainment from the United States, and on occasion the British Isles, Cannes, which has certainly made its share of blunders when handing out prizes, can at least be credited for being international in its taste and unafraid to reward movies considered overly esoteric by the American mainstream media.

Gallery: Cannes Red Carpet

Another noteworthy aspect of the Cannes experience is the inevitable lack of consensus among critics and the public concerning the merits of the Competition films—reinforcing the sometimes forgotten truism that criticism is an art, not a science. Critical contentiousness becomes something of a spectator sport on the Riviera as thousands of journalists—ranging from gossip columnists to academic critics representing small circulation film journals—debate the hot movies of the day.

This year, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which will be released in the winter by Oscilloscope Laboratories proved to be a particularly divisive Competition entry among the assembled critical flock. While Ramsay’s film, which starred Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly as one of the most unlikely married couples in the history of the cinema, garnered raves from some of the major industry trade journals—Variety and Screen International; The Hollywood Reporter was slightly less effusive—it struck me as a brilliant misfire. From the moment that Kevin opens with an arresting overhead shot of suburban mom Eva (Swinton) frolicking at a tomato festival as red liquid spurts in all directions, we’re aware that Ramsay, a Scottish director previously known for smaller scale projects such as Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, is hugely talented. Unfortunately, her gift for visual fireworks eventually proves sadly overwrought since the need to be obtrusively “cinematic” overwhelms and, to a certain extent serves to mask, the rather banal story it encases. Based on a novel by American-born, British-based novelist Lionel Shriver, the film, which unfolds with the aid of a series of intricately choreographed flashbacks, recounts Eva’s horror and guilt as she attempts to come to terms with her son’s high school shooting spree. Ramsay doubtless felt the need to make something extraordinary from this pulpy departure point. But, despite the resourceful director’s attempts at subtlety, the prodigal son is depicted as more of a monster than a believable human being. Of course, Swinton’s nuanced performance partially redeems the film and Ramsay’s visual pyrotechnics, however hollow at times, are still a sight to behold.

To my mind, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a superficially simple action film shot on location in Los Angeles by a Danish director, was much more artistically successful—not to mention entertaining. Drive, which won the “Mis En Scene” Award on Sunday, is almost a parody of the high concept neo-noir; as the press booklet puts it, “Driver,” the archetypal hero played with minimalist brilliance by Ryan Gosling, “is a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night.” Aided by a taut script by Hossein Amini (best known perhaps for a film that couldn’t be much more different, Iain Softley’s 1997 adaptation of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove) and Newton Thomas Sigel’s effectively moody cinematography, the straightforward premise allows Refn to pay discreet homage to the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s similarly stoic hero in Le Samouräi, as well as referencing a slew of American genre films made by, among others, Michael Mann and Tony Scott. Yet the result never feels academic: the Driver’s encounters with colorful thugs played by Ron Perlman and, most entertainingly, Albert Brooks (playing a shady ex-film producer) give the gangster cum car chase genre a new boost of adrenalin. Even though Carey Mulligan, the female lead, is saddled with a fairly inert role as Gosling’s nominal, mostly platonic, love interest, Drive is one Cannes entry that will please both fans of “popcorn” movies and devotees of art cinema.

Another foray into high concept narrative, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, failed miserably. A collaboration resulting from a fortuitous meeting between Sean Penn and Italian director Sorrentino at Cannes in 2008 (a year when Sorrentino won the Jury Prize for Il Divo and Penn headed the Competition jury), the premise involves aging former glam rock star Cheyenne’s (an absurdly mannered performance by Penn) search for the man who tortured his father in Auschwitz. The fatuous narrative synthesis of rock and roll nostalgia (Talking Heads founder David Byrne is featured in a gratuitous small role) and retribution for Nazi crimes makes for an earnest, if cringeworthy film that almost surpasses, for pure bad taste, anything that Lars von Trier said in jest.

Two films by other Cannes veterans—Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre and Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike (which was awarded the Grand Prix Award on Sunday for the runners-up), were infinitely more admirable examples of socially conscious cinema. Kaurismäki, known as a master of “deadpan” comedy to the extent that perhaps he should change his name to Aki “Deadpan” Kaurismäki, delivered one of his typically charming low-key films about likeable bohemians and down and out outcasts. Marcel Marx (André Wilms) has abandoned his literary ambitions to become a lowly shoeshine in the French port city of Le Havre. But through a series of delightfully unlikely events, Marcel ends up helping Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a preteen African refugee with a desperate need to get to London. Despite the contemporary setting, Kaurismäki’s allusions to classic French films by the likes of Marcel Carné and Robert Bresson, give Le Havre the feel of a timeless parable.

The Dardenne brothers’ more sober effort extended their career-long interest in young people on the margins of society and the importance of exercising intelligent moral choices in a world where these choices often seem limited by the whims of the smug and powerful. The Kid With a Bike also celebrates that rarity in world cinema: the truly “good,” well-intentioned individual. After Cyril (Thomas Doret) runs away from a children’s home he despises, the compassionate Samantha (Cécile de France, used to much better effect in this film than she was in Clint Eastwood’s recent white elephant, Hereafter) takes the young boy, devastated by his father’s rejection, under her wing. While Cyril, despite Samantha’s efforts, initially seems destined for a life of crime, the Dardennes’ blessedly unsaccharine humanism never lets us relinquish hope.

Despite the obvious temptation to focus exclusively on the Official Competition, Mojtaba Mirtamasb and Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, smuggled out of Iran and screened out of competition, was by far the most powerful and moving film screened at Cannes. From one angle, this unclassifiable blend of memoir, personal essay, and political indictment addresses the fate of Panahi, the Iranian director who together with his compatriot Mohammad Rasoulof, was convicted of “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to a six-year prison sentence and twenty-year ban on making films in December 2010. Speaking directly to Mirtamasb’s camera, Panahi not only surveys the difficulties of being a dissident artist in a repressive state. Necessarily confined to his apartment, Panahi (under house arrest while he awaits the Islamic state’s final verdict) also demonstrates how a courageous man balances the complications of serving as a now-iconic spokesman for human rights with the imperatives of a personal life. Whether attending to his daughter’s pet iguana, speaking on the telephone with his lawyer, or mapping out the contours of films that may never be made, Panahi, far from a saintly martyr, emerges as an engaging, but complicated, man whose fate attracted put him in the spotlight of the international media. Whatever Cannes’ shortcomings, any festival that can offer both the genre escapism of Drive and the political acuity of This is Not a Film cannot be lightly dismissed.

Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.