Small is Beautiful

Juries, with nothing challenging to look at, reward tiny pics

55ieme association Français du festival international du film Cannes, France, May 15-26. Rating: NNN

Rating: NNNNN

Cannes — The Cannes Festival whips by in a blur of photo ops and the cicada-whir of photographers yelling at stars as they sweep majestically into press conferences and up the red carpet into the Grande Salle Lumière. When Christina Ricci opened the American Pavilion on the fest’s opening Friday, there were more than 200 photographers hollering, “Christina! S’il vous plaît!” I mean, Christina Ricci? Then some real, honest-to-god movie stars showed up and it just got worse.

I did see three dozen films and I didn’t see anything great — no pin-you-to-your-seat, don’t-dare-to-look-away masterpieces — but there were some good films.

Elie Souleiman’s Divine Intervention is a sublimely wonky film to have been chosen the first Palestinian entry in the Competition. Two colleagues independently compared it to the Swedish oddity Songs From The Second Floor, and they’re not wrong. It’s a deadpan comedy set in Nazareth and Jerusalem, with a very slender narrative through-line.

The other best film of the fest for me was Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without A Past, the story of a man who wakes up after a savage beating with no memory and wanders among the down-and-outs of Helsinki until he finds a Salvation Army worker to fall in love with. Kaurismäki has an astonishingly assured visual sense at this point in his career — The Man Without A Past looks like one of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas on Prozac.

If those were the best movies here — or David Cronenberg’s Spider or Roman Polanski’s Holocaust epic, The Pianist — none of them is particularly challenging or particularly large-scale.

It’s an odd thing to say about The Pianist, a movie that spans all of the second world war, I know, but it’s still a small picture in a big box.

People don’t come to Cannes to discover nice small movies. There’s Sundance for that, or Berlin.

Cannes has built its reputation on big, epochal movies. For every little Palme winner like Rosetta or Taste Of Cherry, there are five with the size and ambition of Pulp Fiction or Viridiana or The Piano.

The jury wound up taking the easy way out. They gave the Palme d’Or to a movie about the Holocaust — a very well-made but pedestrian movie about the Holocaust at that. As Heidegger said, repetition destroys meaning, and the one feeling I had during The Pianist was “been there, done that” — and not just once, but a few dozen times. There are, I’m sure, still great films to be made about the Holocaust, but Polanski’s isn’t one of them.

Whoever gave the jury its marching orders, whether it was festival president Gilles Jacob or programming chief Thierry Frmaux (I suspect Jacob — Frémaux is the Mr. Smithers of Cannes), must have told the jury to spread out the prizes, but that doesn’t account for the acting prizes.

Choosing Kati Outinen, in roughly the same performance she’s given in every Kaurismäki film since The Match Factory Girl, over Miranda Richardson’s triple turn in Cronenberg’s Spider is strange enough, but picking The Son’s Olivier Gourmet over first-rate work by Jack Nicholson, Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Auteuil, all at the top of their games, is just plain weird. It may be the first time in Cannes history that the jury has honoured the back of someone’s neck.

Heck, if you’re going to go weird (which we might have expected from a jury led by David Lynch), go all the way and give the Palme to something everyone hated.

johnh@nowtoronto.comwho won what

at cannes


The Pianist, by Roman Polanski (France/Poland)


The Man Without A Past, by Aki Kaurismäki (Finland)


Divine Intervention, by Elia Suleiman (Palestine)


Kati Outinen (The Man Without A Past)


Olivier Gourmet (The Son, Belgium)


Im Kwon-taek (Chihwaseon, South Korea) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, U.S.)


Paul Laverty, for Sweet Sixteen (UK)


Bowling For Columbine, by Michael Moore (Canada/U.S.)on location in Cannes

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