With few exceptions, it’s impossible to predict with any accuracy which films will be given awards at the Cannes film festival, where there are usually more than enough movies deserving of one prize or another; only occasionally – as was the case in 1991 with Barton Fink, or in 2009 with The White Ribbon – does one film stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, making it a fairly dead cert for the Palme d’Or. This year’s edition of the festival had no clear frontrunner, and only a handful of films almost universally dismissed as poor; instead, it had a sizeable clutch of movies deemed by most attendees as good-to-very-good, which made it particularly difficult to guess which films the jury might favour.
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And at least many of us who sat through all the competition titles felt pretty happy with how the awards were divided up by the jury; the movies which carried off prizes largely coincided with those that had been given the most stars for the Screen Daily critics’ grid. Overall, the awards felt sensible – unlike, say, those given by George Miller’s jury in 2016, when quite a few titles admired by the critics went entirely unrewarded – and some have attributed that to the predominance of writer-directors on the 2019 jury; besides jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu, there were Kelly Reichardt, Alice Rohrwacher, Pawel Pawlikowski, Yorgos Lanthimos and Robin Campillo. Admittedly, actors Elle Fanning and Maimouna N’Diaye and graphic novelist Enki Bilal are renowned primarily for something other than directing, though the last two have also been known to get behind the camera on occasion. What is also perhaps significant is that most of the auteurs on the jury have at one time or another made films of socio-political import. There was, accordingly, an expectation that a certain sensibility might well be discerned in the choices they would make when distributing the prizes.
And lo, it came to pass. When the awards were announced, it became clear not only that this jury had pretty good taste, but that it had been interested, to some degree, in recognising films that were socially or politically aware, or somehow concerned with pressing ethical issues. But it was also evident that the jury had been keen to acknowledge the achievements both of the women directors competing for the Palme d’or, and of those younger filmmakers who were either new to or relatively recent contestants in the main competition. Indeed, the winners were pleasingly ‘diverse’ on a number of fronts. Of the Cannes ‘old guard’, only Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne figured among the prizewinners; they were named Best Directors for Young Ahmed – a film of no little socio-political import, since it focuses, which typically unsentimental compassion, on a 13-year-old Belgian boy who has fallen under the influence of an imam preaching a puritanical, almost extremist version of Islam.
Some might point out that a film by another Cannes favourite was rewarded, since Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory won Antonio Banderas the Best Actor gong. The award was well deserved, though some may have rued the fact that the film’s writer-director didn’t receive anything; though Almodóvar’s movies have gleaned quite a few prizes over the years, he still hasn’t won the coveted Palme d’Or, an omission many would probably like to see remedied at some point. The Best Actress prize, meanwhile, went to Emily Beecham for her lead role in Jessica Hausner’s first film in the main competition, Little Joe, a fascinating fable about the politics of the workplace and motherhood; again, a very subtly nuanced performance meant that the award felt perfectly logical.
There were many rooting for Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire to win the top prize, but in the event it received the prize for Best Screenplay, a reflection, perhaps, of the slightly clumsy treatment of painting and music in an otherwise impressive celebration of lesbian love and female solidarity that features an all-women cast. Another of the four films in the main competition directed by women – Atlantique, the feature debut of French-Senegalese writer-director Mati Diop, which deals, among other things, with arranged marriage, exploitative employers and the perilous migration of the poor and dispossessed – was a popular winner of the Grand Prix (effectively the second prize), while the Jury Prize (the third prize) was divided between two movies which also dealt with injustice and vengeful violence. Ladj Ly’s first feature Les Misérables deals with policing, crime and punishment in the Parisian suburbs, while Bacurau, by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, is a cautionary tale set in the near future about a remote Brazilian village menaced by murderous exploitation. Though very different in their aesthetic – the former is essentially realist, the latter more generic (it eventually turns into a kind of western) – the films echo one another (and Atlantique, for that matter) in their tales of the oppressed deciding to fight back against their oppressors.
As it happens, that dynamic is also to some degree at work in the movie awarded the Palme d’Or: Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. Essentially, the film blends comedy and suspense as a family of four, impoverished and unemployed, begin working their way into the lives of a wealthy couple and their kids by applying for jobs for which they have no official qualifications but which they manage to perform anyway through a mixture of fraudulent lies and intuitive intelligence. Inevitably, there is a risk of their being found out, and eventually chaos breaks out in a series of meticulously staged set-pieces. Underlying all the darkly comic fun, however, there is a constantly nagging reminder that the society on view is one of massive inequality and servitude; and it is almost undoubtedly this combination of commentary and satire, even more than the polished cinematic technique on display, which led the jury to honour Bong’s film with Cannes’ top prize.
Complete list of winners:
Palme D’Or: Parasite, Bong Joon Ho
Grand Prix: Atlantique, Mati Diop
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, Young Ahmed
Actor: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Actress: Emily Beecham, Little Joe
Jury Prize: Les Miserables, Ladj Ly and Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Screenplay: Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Special Mention: It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Camera D’Or: Our Mothers, Cesar Diaz
Short Films Palme D’Or: The Distance Between the Sky and Us, Vasilis Kekatos
Short Films Special Mention: Monster God, Agustina San Martin
Golden Eye Documentary Prize: For Sama
Ecumenical Jury Prize: A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Queer Palm: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
Un Certain Regard:
Un Certain Regard Award: The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão, Karim Aïnouz
Jury Prize: Fire Will Come, Oliver Laxe
Best Director: Kantemir Balagov, Beanpole
Best Performance: Chiara Mastroianni, On a Magical Night
Special Jury Prize: Albert Serra, Liberté
Special Jury Mention: Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
Coup de Coeur Award: A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri; The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino
Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Prize: An Easy Girl, Rebecca Złotowski
Europa Cinemas Label: Alice and the Mayor, Nicolas Parisier
Illy Short Film Award: Stay Awake, Be Ready, An Pham Thien
Nespresso Grand Prize: I Lost My Body, Jérémy Clapin
Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Prize: César Diaz, Our Mothers
GAN Foundation Award for Distribution: The Jokers Films, French distributor for Vivarium by Lorcan Finnegan
Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star Award: Ingvar E. Sigurosson, A White, White Day
Leitz Cine Discovery Prize for Short Film: She Runs, Qiu Yang
Canal Plus Award for Short Film: Ikki Illa Meint, Andrias Høgenni
First Prize: Mano a Mano, Louise Courvoisier
Second Prize: Hiéu, Richard Van
Third Prize: Ambience, Wisam Al Jafari; Duszycka (The Little Soul), Barbara Rupik
Competition: It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Un Certain Regard: Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
Director’s Fortnight/Critic’s Week: The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers