Cannes 2018: thoughts from Geoff Andrew

BFI Southbank’s programmer-at-large Geoff Andrew reflects on how the Cannes jury dealt with this year’s very strong competition line-up.

Geoff Andrew

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or

As someone who’s had the privilege of serving on more than a dozen film festival juries I’m always fascinated by the prizes juries award, particularly at that most famous of festivals, Cannes.

This year’s typically international nine-strong jury for Cannes’ main competition was presided over by Cate Blanchett and boasted three more actors (Kristen Stewart, Léa Seydoux, Chang Chen), four writer-directors (Ava DuVernay, Robert Guédiguian, Denis Villeneuve, Andrey Zvyagintsev) and a composer and singer (Khadja Nin).

Impossible, obviously, to draw any conclusions from that lot, and it’s always foolhardy to try to predict the winners. No one can foresee which films individual jurors are going to like, let alone what arguments will prevail when the jury gets together to deliberate.

By the time all the competing films had screened, the general take on the festival among the press was that it had presented one of the strongest line-ups in years. There were only a couple of titles that had mustered just a pitiful handful of defenders, and most of the films were indeed welcomed as pretty damned good. There were a dozen or more movies that could deservingly have won one of the seven awards, and five or six strong contenders for the Palme d’Or itself.

With such a robust field, Blanchett and co actually ended up rewarding nine titles, nominating two winners for the best screenplay award, and contriving to create an entirely new gong – a ‘special’ Palme d’Or – for Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book (this actually felt more like some kind of life-achievement acknowledgment for the 87-year-old enfant terrible than a prize for that specific film).

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, which shared the award for best screenplay

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, which shared the award for best screenplay

Indeed, a few of the prizes seemed to have been given in recognition of the film overall rather than as a reward for a specific aspect of said film. For example, neither of the pair which shared the best screenplay prize – Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Jafar Panahi’s Three Faces – boasted a script that felt especially impressive. It was if the jury wanted to reward each title, but didn’t really know what other prizes they could be given. This sort of thing happens all the time on juries when there are many different films individual jurors want to support. All manner of horse-trading goes on so that every juror can go away at the end feeling their own opinions have been properly respected.

Three awards at least did feel as if they were made for very specific reasons. The best actor and best actress gongs went to Marcello Fonte in Matteo Garrone’s Dogman and to Samal Yeslyamova in Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka – both give strong performances and are on screen in virtually every single shot of their respective films. And the best director prize for Pawel Pawlikowski and Cold War made perfect sense: the sheer precision of the editing and every meticulously lit and framed shot, the painstaking attention to detail in terms of performance and period recreation, and the bold sense of rhythm and narrative ellipsis are all reminders that the director is wholly in control of each and every element of his film.

Cold War, which won best director for Pawel Pawlikowski

Cold War, which won best director for Pawel Pawlikowski

Then there’s the Jury Prize, the Grand Prix (effectively the second prize) and the Palme d’Or itself. The first of these went to the popular and powerful Capharnaüm by Lebanese writer, director and actor Nadine Labaki, a story of poverty and child labour that many had tipped for the top prize.

Similar tips surrounded the eventual Grand Prix winner. This was Spike Lee’s entertaining and forceful BlacKkKlansman, inspired by a true story about a black police officer overseeing an undercover infiltration of the KKK during the 70s, but characteristically skewed to make the narrative wholly relevant to America today. These two titles won out over a few other highly rated titles, most notably Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree – proof of the generally very high standard of the competition, and a reminder that when there are many deserving contestants, there simply aren’t enough prizes to go round.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen, winner of the Grand Prix

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen, winner of the Grand Prix

When it was finally announced that the Palme d’Or would go to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, most of those who’d sat through the entire competition were understandably delighted – Koreeda is a major filmmaker and has long been a Cannes favourite. But there was also an element of surprise. Why had this film taken the prize that several of his earlier films had been beaten to? Why was Shoplifters, for all its many very evident virtues, deemed by the jury to be superior to some of the other titles that had been tipped for the top?

We will never know the answer to those questions, but I suspect that while there may have been differences of opinion about most of the other prime contestants, Shoplifters – with its witty, unsentimental, insightful, very affecting look at life on the margins in today’s Japan – was quite simply the film that everyone on Blanchett’s jury had liked, even if for some of the jurors it may not have been their first choice. That, very often, is how these things turn out. And in this case, the jury appears to have pleased most of the press and the other professionals in Cannes, by rewarding a very fine and very deserving filmmaker, however belatedly, with the most prestigious of all festival awards.

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