The common wisdom at the Cannes Film Festival is that the prizes are never entirely right. The juries make weird compromises, the winner is inevitably everyone’s second or third choice, and the best films, performances or technical accomplishments are nudged aside by safer picks that won’t cause a fuss.
But sometimes things go the right way, as was the case when Sean Penn announced the Palme d’Or winner, Laurent Cantet’s The Class. A razor-sharp look at one year in the life of a French high school class, it’s a terrific, cohesive work that makes the intellectual challenges of educating today’s youth seem thrilling rather than hopeless. It’s also built around a tremendous debut by actor François Bégaudeau, who co-authored the screenplay from his own novel.
In any fair universe, that feat would have led to Bégaudeau winning best actor as well, but Cannes juries are famous for doling out their awards very sparingly; it’s rare that any film wins more than one.
Thus, when Benicio del Toro was named best actor for Che – in what jury president Penn stressed was “a unanimous decision” – that meant Steven Soderbergh’s problematic film was almost certainly out of the running for the Palme. (Ever the politician, Penn made sure to tell us The Class was also the unanimous choice for that prize.)Decidedly not described as unanimous were special awards to Clint Eastwood and Catherine Deneuve, which were presented for their bodies of work rather than the films they’d ridden in on. Neither Eastwood’s The Exchange nor Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noël, which features a fine turn by Deneuve, won any actual awards.
The Italian contingent took home some unexpected prizes. The Grand Prix – known informally as “le prix de le runner-up” – went to Matteo Garrone’s rather bloated gangster picture, Gomorrah. But that film looks like City Of God next to Paolo Sorrentino’s showy, spastic Il Divo, which copped the Jury Prize.
The immaculately bleak digital vistas of Three Monkeys earned Nuri Bilge Ceylan the best-director prize, which makes sense so long as you accept that the best-actor win for Che rendered Soderbergh’s vivid images ineligible for a second prize. (I’d also have been happy to see Charlie Kaufman win for Synecdoche, New York’s maniacally detailed compositions and performances.)
And in the night’s biggest upset, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence won best screenplay, meaning Arta Dobroschi’s powerful turn in the title role was unlikely to be acknowledged.
Everyone figured that meant Martina Gusman was a lock for her performance in the prison drama Leonera – but in a genuine shock, the prize went to Linha De Passe’s Sandra Corveloni, who has perhaps 45 minutes of screen time as the mother of the four boys who are the film’s principal characters.
When Corveloni’s name was called, my colleagues watching the awards at the Debussy had to ask me who she was; I was the only one who’d seen the movie. But the initial scorn was quickly nullified when co-director Daniela Thomas explained that Corveloni couldn’t be present to accept the award, as she’d just suffered a miscarriage at home.
Sometimes the prizes don’t really matter all that much.