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Grace of Monaco
Biographical films aren’t what they used to be, and thank goodness for that. Many of those inspirational, by-the-numbers celluloid (er, digital) resumes are thud-worthy. At Cannes there are a few biographies, and while not all are works of genius, many take a different approach to the genre.
The festival opened with Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, nee Kelly. Alright, this is not the best example of a new style of biography. In fact in this version of her life, Princess Grace single-handedly saves a world on the brink of war, when she gets all the right people to attend a Red Cross benefit. On top of that, she discovers family traitors in the ranks in a story of palace intrigue. Who knew?
“Mr. Turner” by Mike Leigh, stars Timothy Spall as the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner. In addition to the apparently huge amount of research done by Leigh and Spall, the film itself has the look and feel of a Turner painting. Spall is magnificent as the solitary painter who had a genius way of painting but has the look and feel of a feral animal when it comes to most human contact. As with another great work by Leigh that deals with historical - and artistic - characters, “Topsy Turvy” (about Gilbert and Sullivan), the film doesn’t lay out the characters’ entire life. No flashback to childhood so we might understand why Turner is the way he is. Instead we are treated to a moment in his life; a sketch, perhaps, that give us a hint to the life of the man.
“Saint Laurent,” Bertrand Bonello’s fantastical and exciting portrait of the designer, comes on the heels of a fairly standard bio of Yves Saint Laurent. That one uses a prosthetic nose so that we recognize the main character. Bonello does no such thing. His actors (two portray Saint Laurent at different stages) simply embody the man, and so we know him very well by his words, his movements. Bonello uses lavishness in the characters and the photography to represent an excessive era.
Speaking of prosthetics, Steve Carell does use one to inhabit the character of disturbed (to say the least) millionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” And while his portrayal is intensely disturbing, this writer spent a great deal of time internally remarking that Steve Carell was hidden under that nose. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum used no such devises to play the Schultz brothers. Miller depends on these intense portraitures to evoke that strange happenings on the du Pont estate.
Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou” tells the story of 19th century poet Heinrich von Kleist, who committed suicide along with his lover, Henriette Vogel. The film comes off as a studied, wry comedy. By the way, that’s comedy in the Shakespearian sense; that is, Hausner does not view suicide as tragedy. Instead, she creates a period set piece that veers on the absurd.
With the exception of “Grace of Monaco,” each of these films gives a new look to biographical drama. Taken together they represent not just deeper looks at real life, but instead using true stories and characters to propel cinematic storytelling, a win for viewers, certainly – but also a win for the future of biographical storytelling.
After twelve days in the not-so-warm breezes of Cannes, the awards are finally given out, which always leads to much opinionating on the part of observers. Who is right? The jury, who have been wheeling and dealing (so to speak) behind closed doors? Or the rest of us, who have very strong opinions that don’t stay hidden. The competition jury president was filmmaker Jane Campion and her fellow jurors included actors Carole Bouquet, Leila Hatami, Jeon Do-Yeon, Willem DaFoe, Gael Garcia Bernal and writer/directors Sofia Coppola, Jia Zhangke and Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Camera d’Or is given out for the best first feature film and is selected from debuts in all the sections of the festival. It even has its own jury, made up of French actors, directors, cinematographers, critics and led by actor/director Nicole Garcia. This year the prize went to “Party Girl,” a French film that opened the Un Certain Regard section and was directed by a triad of first timers: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis. Refreshingly the main character is a 60-year-old woman – rare for young filmmakers – maybe that’s what intrigued the jury. While another first feature, “The Tribe” swept the Critics’ Week awards (the section that presented the film), I would have chosen “Next to Her,” a wrenching drama of love and loyalty by Israeli director Asaf Korman.
Back to the feature awards. The jury doesn’t always give out the same amount of prizes. For instance, awards have been given for cinematography but not so this year. If the jury doesn’t find something worthy of the award, it won’t be given out – although that only happens with the more technical awards. And you’re not likely to see one film sweep the prizes; there’s a lot of sharing going on, by unofficial decree, it would seem.
And share they did: Eight awards were given out to eight different films. Bennett Miller took the Best Director prize for “Foxcatcher.” Not a bad choice, but I though Mike Leigh’s direction of “Mr. Turner” was perfection. I would have gone in that direction. But “Mr. Turner” wasn’t forgotten: Timothy Spall received Best Actor accolades and I cannot disagree. Spall’s turn as a feral-like creature who churned out beautiful works of art was one of the highlights of the festival.
Julianne Moore was given the Best Actress award for her work in “Maps to the Stars.” She is always a pleasure to watch and her work in David Cronenberg’s film is by turns funny, sad and a bit creepy. But I would have been happy to see Anne Dorval singled out for her role as a mother at the end of her rope in Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.” Maybe Juliette Binoche – or Kristen Stewart – in the Olivier Assayas drama “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Just a thought.
Assayas himself most certainly was a contender for the Best Screenplay prize with his story of an actress of a certain age (Binoche) who is forced to see herself past present and future by way of two younger women (Stewart and Chole Grace Moretz), but that honor went to Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev for his incisive yet funny – and politically dangerous – script for “Leviathan.”
Jury prizes and the Grand Prix are usually seen as recognition for runners-up, and it’s not a terrible idea. I, for one, am not captivated by the idea that one film (or anything, for that matter) is the absolute best. However, the idea of a Cannes with no prizes is not exactly sweeping the nation (France or the U.S.) So spread the wealth. Just make sure it doesn’t approach kids’ sport teams, where every member of every team – win or lose – takes home a trophy!
Two jury prizes were given out. One to the oldest filmmaker in the competition: Jean-Luc Godard, for his extravagant 3D think piece “Goodbye to Language” and one to the youngest: Xavier Dolan for “Mommy,” wherein he continues to mine his own (I’m sure) mother issues, to great effect. Godard, naturally, was not on the premises, but Dolan gave a wonderfully heartfelt acceptance. Also grateful was Alice Rohrwacher, who won the Grand Prize for her second feature “The Wonders.” And she had to give her acceptance speech with Sophia Loren looming large onstage beside her!
Finally, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s three hour plus opus “Winter Sleep” won the Palme d’or, the top prize. In 2011 his film “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” won the jury grand prize, so he has worked his way to the top of the festival award food chain. I would submit that his previous film should have received the Palme d’or, but this film is worthy also. However, a film that received no love at the awards and is, in my book, the best film of the festival, was “Timbuktu,” Abderrahmane Sissako’s stinging portrait of a community stuck in the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. Beautifully shot (there’s your cinematography prize) and acted (though I fear no one in this ensemble will win an acting prize as they are not well known at all), this film moved me as no film has in a very long time.
Was he “robbed” of a prize? Maybe. But prizes are just gifts – pretty certificates or trophies. What will count down the road is the impact any of these films make on screens around the world. Let’s hope they all make that journey.
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