'Loving', 'Paterson' Among Awards Contenders Finally Arriving at Cannes

A German comedy, an interracial love story, a veteran Brit auteur and even a charming English bulldog have sparked early talk of film honors along the Croisette.

It took six days at this year’s Cannes Film Festival before festgoers began throwing around the O-word with abandon.

Bookies have been busy laying bets on the eventual Palme D’Or winner — currently, at Paddypower.com, the German comedy Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade, has the best odds (9-to-4), with I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s protest against an unfeeling British welfare system, close behind (7-to-2).

And after seeing Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, wags were predicting that the late Nellie, who plays the movie’s prominently featured English Bulldog, Marvin, has the Palm Dog wrapped up, and the film, starring Adam Driver, should prove to be an eventual Spirit Awards player.

But for those looking to Cannes as a launching platform for Oscar contenders, the pickings have been slim — until, that is, yesterday's first press screening of Jeff Nichols’ new film, Loving. The 37-year-old director is no stranger to the Croisette. His Take Shelter won the Critics' Week Grand Prize in 2011; with 2012’s Mud, he entered the main competition for the first time; and he’s received plenty of indie acclaim.

Loving, though, could take Nichols to the next level, awards-wise. As applause echoed through the Palais, The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee tweeted, “Loving is an exceptional, heartbreaking film. The first real Oscar contender at this year’s festival.”

The story of Richard and Mildred Loving — the interracial couple whose 1958 marriage violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 — Nichols’ film could have been a standard-issue courtroom drama, culminating with soaring oratory. But the helmer chose to take a different course, and the two-hour-three-minute movie concentrates instead on the Lovings themselves: Richard, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton as a man of few words who keeps his emotions bottled up, and the more optimistic Mildred, played by the Ethiopia-born Ruth Negga.

Both performers immediately became part of the best actor and actress conversation. In terms of awards potential, the biggest obstacle each may face is that Nichols gives neither of their characters the sort of big, third-act speech that often clinches awards. When Edgerton’s Richard is asked by one of the lawyers what message they should convey to the court, he says simply, “Tell them I love my wife.” Still, Negga was asked at the after-screening press conference if she’s ready to win an Oscar — a question she declined to answer, with Nichols quickly intervening, “Let’s just get through this press conference first.”

With the backing of Focus Features, which picked up rights to the film in Berlin and will release it stateside on Nov. 4, Loving, though intimate and understated, can also claim the importance that the Motion Picture Academy tends to favor. To boost its best picture prospects, the distributor is sure to play up its topicality: The Loving v. Virginia decision, in which then Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man,” was cited in the recent Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing the right to same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, though Woody Allen’s Cafe Society and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG debuted to mixed reviews, they could ultimately deliver nominations for veteran Oscar winners like Cafe Society cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who serves up lush evocations of '30s Hollywood, and The BFG composer John Williams, who provides another of his vividly expressive scores.

The visual effects community also is sure to notice Joe Letteri’s work in The BFG, and though the Academy’s actors branch has yet to nominate a motion-capture performance, recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance’s work as the movie’s title giant, while it has to be considered a real longshot, should at least provoke discussion that mo-cap performances deserve serious consideration.