Critic's Notebook: With Cannes Prizes, Coen Brothers Keep It Weird

Jacques Audiard Jesuthasan Antonythasan Kalieaswari Srinivasan Cannes - H 2015
AP Images

From a politically charged Palme d'Or winner to a startling Cate Blanchett snub, the prizes handed out by Joel and Ethan Coen's jury elicited jeers, cheers and even a sob.

We should have known to expect the unexpected from the Coens. True to eccentric form, the American filmmakers and 2015 Cannes jury heads brought this year’s festival to a close with an offbeat, even controversial set of prizes that had journalists in the press room wiping away tears one minute, scratching their heads — and even booing — the next.

Not that the brothers care: “This isn’t a jury of film critics, this is a jury of artists,” Joel Coen said with a touch of snark at the news conference following the awards ceremony.

Faced with a competition slate generally considered subpar, the jury (which also included Jake Gyllenhaal, Sienna Miller, Guillermo del Toro and Xavier Dolan) handed the coveted Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s somewhat polarizing Dheepan. The drama about Sri Lankan immigrants in Paris was hailed by some (mostly Anglophone) critics for its solid storytelling and sharp critique of French society, but slammed by others for its abrupt, brutal denouement. Notably, a significant portion of France’s press seemed to take umbrage with the movie’s portrayal of underprivileged, minority-heavy Parisian suburbs as ghettoized hotbeds of literally explosive violence. As one Gallic critic said to me: “It’s a sensitive subject here right now; you have to be careful and responsible in how you depict it.”

Coming just months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the decision to give the top prize to a film about people of color struggling to integrate in a France rife with tensions was in many ways a timely one. It was also a classic example of jury presidents picking a winner as far removed as one could imagine from their own artistic tendencies. Dheepan is a straightforward, hard-hitting, meat-and-potatoes work with not a shred of the irony, screwball mischief or deadpan humor typical of the Coens’ filmography; its realism and restless handheld camerawork are a far cry from the brothers’ meticulous compositions. Mainstream maestro Steven Spielberg similarly stepped outside his “comfort zone” by crowning the emotionally and sexually raw epic lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Color when he chaired the Cannes jury in 2013.

So far, so understandable.

A more baffling move was giving a double Best Actress prize to Rooney Mara, for her understated turn as an enamored young woman in Todd HaynesCarol, and… Emmanuelle Bercot, the leading lady of Maiwenn’s widely dismissed Mon Roi. That French entry — in which Bercot plays a ski accident survivor haunted by her roller-coaster marriage to a sexy sketchball (Vincent Cassel) — yielded a much-noted gender divide among critics, with many women praising its attention to female desire and most men responding with a collective groan. But even defenders of the film seemed surprised at Bercot’s win (which elicited much jeering and sneering in the Debussy Theater, where the press watched the ceremony on the big screen) — especially since double-acting prizes are practically tailor-made for duos like Mara and her costar, Cate Blanchett, whose captivating performance as the film’s titular object of desire was even more universally admired than Mara’s.

The decision to exclude Blanchett was not just illogical — it also seemed a bit perverse. The only explanation anyone could fathom was that the jury figured Blanchett has already snagged enough statuettes in her time, and may continue to do so for this very role when awards season kicks off in earnest.

Another prize that drew eye-rolling from journalists was Best Screenplay for Michel Franco's Chronic, an austere drama about a terminal care nurse (Tim Roth) that features a pared-down script, as well as a sketchily plotted third act and a broadly unpopular shocker of a final sequence. Many expected Roth to take home Best Actor for his compelling, committed turn, but that went to the even more deserving Vincent Lindon, quietly magnetic as a French factory worker who gets laid off in Stéphane Brizé's stirring The Measure of a Man. A visibly moved Lindon, the most macho-looking of France's leading men, embraced each jury member individually before noting in his speech that he had never won an award before. It was one of the few moments in the ceremony to be heartily applauded by journalists, one of whom broke down in loud sobs when the actor thanked his recently deceased mother.

Meanwhile, the harrowing Auschwitz thriller Son of Saul, which many thought had a good shot at the Palme, grabbed the second-place Grand Prize (not bad for a feature-length debut). By choosing not to give the Hungarian film the highest honor, the jury dodged a different kind of controversy; the movie, which uses an almost square aspect ratio, shallow depth of field and lots of close-ups to relegate much of the Jewish suffering on display to the background, has its share of vocal detractors (including The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who acknowledged the film’s technical prowess but called it “intellectually repellent”).

And, much to the disappointment of his avid fans, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien had to settle for Best Director for his 9th-century-set martial arts film, The Assassin. Somewhat predictably, Hou seemed to split critics into two camps: formalists who were enraptured by his ravishing visuals and traditionalists who bemoaned the diffuse, hard-to-follow plot. The movie’s champions saw it as an ideal Palme d’Or.

In the days preceding the closing ceremony, some speculated that The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’ bleakly funny dystopian fantasy, would strike the Coens’ fancy; of all the competition entries, it’s probably the one that comes closest to their satirical sensibilities. But the film, for all its many pleasures (including a pot-bellied Colin Farrell), loses steam in the final act; it ended up with the third-place Jury Prize.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the winners’ list was the strong showing by France — best film, actor and actress — given that the country’s whopping five films in competition (including Valérie Donzelli’s staggering misfire of an incestuous love story, Marguerite and Julien) were considered, as a group, underwhelming. The French are known to adore the Coen brothers, who were inducted into the country’s prestigious Order of Arts and Letters in 2013. It looks like the feeling is mutual.