Juries at the Cannes Film Festival have confounded betting odds over the years by picking one of the very last entries in the competition schedule as their Palme d’Or winner. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Taste of Cherry in 1997, Rosetta in 1999, and last year’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives.)
As it happens, the very last entry I saw before returning home on Saturday (I missed the final competition entry, having seen 18 out of the 20 on the ballot) is, I think, a real contender for this endearingly Cannes-ish distinction: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, by Turkish filmmaker (and Cannes regular) Nuri Bilge Ceylan, opens with a nighttime police investigation on a road in the middle of the dark Anatolian nowhere. And it concludes the next day in the morning light of an autopsy.
Progress is slow as time is piddled away by some dozen men in a three-vehicle caravan, looking for the right tree or dip in the landscape that will remind a haggard, unreliable suspect in custody where a body is buried. Out of such seeming meandering, though, Ceylan creates a haunting, at times funny, cumulatively profound drama about village bonds and personal mysteries — a bit of Samuel Beckett, a dollop of Keystone Kops. The movie haunts me still.
Now the question is: Did a 157-minute movie starring unshaven Turkish men who drink tea and talk about yogurt also haunt and delight Cannes jury president Robert De Niro? And what about fellow juror Uma Thurman? Was she not entertained? We’ll know when the awards are handed out later today. In the meantime, I’m ready to hand out my own Palme d’EW awards, using the standard Cannes Festival competition categories as my guide. This isn’t necessarily how I think the jury will vote. But it’s certainly how I think they should vote. Bobby De Niro, I’m watching you:
Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Time will tell whether Lars von Trier’s scandal-stirring stupid talk will damage the promotion of his own seriously good drama. But nothing should get in the way of rewarding Dunst for her finest performance yet, as a bride beset by depression and anxiety. I know Tilda Swinton has fans for her Intense Acting as an ambivalent, guilty mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin. But much as I’m a Swintonite, I wished I could see more character, and less Intense Acting on screen.
Best Actor: Under the circumstances, I hereby establish two sub-categories. Brad Pitt wins in the Professional division for his commanding work as a 1950s father in The Tree of Life; he has never moved me more. Meanwhile, with all the unnervingly good non-professional child actors on view at Cannes this year, the Non-Pro award goes to 12-year-old Thomas Doret, who simply knocked my cycling socks off as the title kid in The Kid With a Bike.
Odds-makers are also keeping their eye on Sean Penn. The actor — and Friend of De Niro — has a small role in The Tree of Life, but a large and rococo starring place as an aging goth rocker name Cheyenne who wears lipstick and speaks in a flat, baby whisper in This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino’s crazy Italian take on David Lynchian themes: Cheyenne travels across America looking for the Nazi who once did something bad to Chayenne’s late father, a Holocaust survivor. Just another day in the USA.
Best Screenplay: Footnote, by Joseph Cedar. On my Festival top-five list, Footnote wears its serious, meaningful intellectual inquiry lightly and with great humor. Cedar, who is also the director, grounds his perceptive query in the best-written script on the 2011 Croisette.
Best Director: Michael Hazanavicious for The Artist — because there’s not another director in the world who could do the thing that Hazanavicius has done: He has made an irresistibly charming, deeply researched silent black-and-white movie that’s a love letter to the cinematic past, conjured with the director’s masterful yet playful use of tools in the cinematic present.
Jury Prize: The Artist — because there’s no other movie like it in the cinematic present.
Grand Prix: Le Havre. What a wonderful world it would be if there were more neighborhoods like the picturesquely shabby dockside burg in Aki Kaurismäki’s typically deadpan droll entry. Behold, a place where unpretentious working-class French people join in neighborly solidarity to protect an illegal African immigrant boy! Le Havre isn’t big and doesn’t wrestle with cosmic issues like those in The Tree of Life. It’s just quietly perfect.
Palme d’Or: Melancholia. I can dream, can’t I? But I’d also be pleased if Once Upon a Time in Anatolia becomes the 2011 Cannes Film Festival once-upon-a-time fairytale winner.
UPDATE: Tree of Life wins the Palme d’Or