Today, in a parallel world, we’d find out what film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2020. So just for kicks I asked some of my film critic friends to tell me just ONE past Palme d’Or winner they felt a personal affinity for. I did NOT ask them to tell me the best Palme winner of all time, that’s an impossible task...
I had visited the set when Ruben Ostlund was shooting THE SQUARE (2017) and interviewed him about the film, so I thought I understood what it would be about, a satire about the contemporary art world. But THE SQUARE had so much more depth, so many twists and turns I wasn’t expecting. Claes Bang delivers a note-perfect, star-making performance; Elisabeth Moss is excellent; Terry Notary pushes things beyond mere uncomfort in that banquet scene. With so many Cannes films so deathly serious, this film tackles its serious themes (social inequality, the pomposity of the art world) while also displaying Ostlund’s wicked sense of humour – that chimpanzee scene got big laughs in the Palais. (Another personal fave would be Antonioni’s BLOW-UP from 1967.)
And now onto the esteemed critics:
Anna Smith It is of course THE PIANO, the extraordinary period drama from Jane Campion, STILL the only female director ever to have won the Palme. I wrote an essay for the DVD notes for THE PIANO anniversary re-release and it was a joy to revisit and to dig deeper into the themes. In our Girls On Film show at BFI YouTube, I was pleased that Billie Piper picked it as one of her favourite films tackling female sexuality.
Catherine Bray 1968 winner IF… was one of those films that switched me on to film. It was probably the first film I saw that wasn't narratively straightforward, and as a teenager, I was totally transfixed to see teenagers in this film behaving in a way that no teenager in any film I'd ever seen before had behaved. It's not that the teenagers in if... were any more realistic or relatable to me than the teenagers in AMERICAN PIE, but they had different priorities, and therefore suggested the possibility of different priorities.
APOCALYPSE NOW sucks you into the marrow of the Vietnam war era, makes you sweat and dodge bullets as it slowly breaks your heart. It also showcases the early work of actors we’ve come to know and love. After finally seeing it on the biggest screen in town late last year, its really is a complete work of terror and splendour…. Either that or BARTON FINK because, “I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!"
My pick is BARTON FINK. This was slightly before my time as an active Cannes attendee (my first was in 2000) but I'd have loved it whether or not it had won the Palme d'Or (and the Coen brothers were still a pretty fringe outfit in 1991). Right from that amazing opening shot, with John Turturro's Fink mouthing his own lines at the premiere of his social-realist play, the Coens created a brilliantly distinctive tone that I immediately loved: simultaneously satirical and serious, funny and scary, and poking fun at Hollywood silliness and chin-stroking theatre at the same time. The Coens have gone from strength to strength since, but they've arguably never been better.
There are certain films you’re happy to see over and over again. THE GO-BETWEEN is mine: it won the Palme d’Or in 1971. Directed by Joseph Losey, it’s the story of a young boy as an Edwardian cupid shuttling scandalous assignatory notes between Julie Christie up at the Big House and lusty local farmer Alan Bates. Harold Pinter wrote the script (his other for Losey – a Proust project - remains one of the great unmades). It has for me elements of a midsummer ghost-story full of gothic echoes and regrets; the musical score has a quick, chilly imminence. I only recently I discovered a great-uncle used to go stay in the house used in the film. One of the young actors grew up to be cartoon villain Herr Lipp on ‘Allo ‘Allo. It’s a screensaver on the laptop as I write and has been for two years.
This is an easy one for me. It was the year 2000, and my second Cannes. I was still very much a newbie, navigating the painful nuisances of the blue badge. Totally jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I saw DANCER IN THE DARK at one of those 8:30am screenings while in a particularly fragile state of mind. All of Lars von Trier’s wildly manipulative masochistic tactics caught me completely off guard, and emotionally wrecked me. At the time, I wrote, “Both rousing applause and boos followed the show, with audience members staggering out into the daylight — some visibly shaken with tears down their faces, others shaking their heads in Trier-ian contempt.” Admittedly, I was one of the weepers.
It's impossible to choose. You just have to go with the one that has personal resonance. So for me that would be PULP FICTION as it was the first time I attended Cannes - 1994 - as a correspondent for a newspaper in Asia (they were finally interested to send me after FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE had shared the Palme D'Or the previous year, and Edward Yang's A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION was playing in Competition along with Ang Lee's EAT DRINK… in Quinzaine). I stayed at what was then the Noga Hilton and knew literally nobody in the whole of Cannes, it wasn't an easy gig and the press screening for PULP FICTION which was at the very end of the festival was a complete bunfight. I got pushed down the steps from the Debussy in the melee, and I was bruised in every way possible. It was the year of PRISCILLA and MURIEL’S WEDDING, SERIAL MOM even, but I can't even pretend I had sufficient good taste to appreciate most of the cinema I was seeing in between those crowd pleasers, I was really young and worried about providing value for the paper. I felt a bit of a failure. But, you know, the film was just so exciting and wildly relevant to where I was in my life then and I just got the feeling of being there, in the middle of cinema as it happened, that Cannes has consistently delivered ever since. So my favourite Cannes winner bottles the feeling I had when I left the Palais that night and you know what, I've never watched it again because I only want to remember it as being part of that evening in early summer, 1994.
It has to be PARIS, TEXAS (Palme d’Or 1984). Wim Wenders road movie feels like a perfect moment in so many careers from the haunting jangle of the Ry Cooder score to the stunning vistas captured by Robby Muller’s camerawork and the heartbreak of Harry Dean Stanton’s performance as Travis, the drifter intent on acts of family reconciliation. Is the peepshow confrontation Nastassja Kinski’s finest hour? Is this Wenders best film? The Palme D’Or victory seems all the sweeter because of the subsequent revelations from jury President Dirk Bogarde of the battle to give the award to the film they had truly admired. “ Nothing for Mr Huston?, “ who was in competition with UNDER THE VOLCANO. “ He has come an awfully long way…..” So had Travis.
I just remember sneaking in as a teenager, with my cousin, to watch TAXI DRIVER (1976) when it opened in London that year – mesmerised by De Niro for the first time, fascinated by the edginess, the way people spoke to each other, that sleazily alluring New York, all of it, before a visceral, terrible explosion of violence I’d never experienced in a film before. It was a formative night out in SE9, let's say. And it still excites, for all the same reasons.
I haven’t seen Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS for ages but the beautiful Robby Müller Polaroids exhibition at IFFR this year prompted me to rediscover it. It was the perfect self-containment film : well, there’s the longing for these beautiful, exquisitely-composed landscapes and, at the same time, it creates a poetic sense of social distanciation, whether you have Harry Dean Stanton talking with Nastassja Kinski through the glass or walking his kid home — each one of them on a separate sidewalk. To quote a latter Wenders film, it felt like the ideal quarantine blanket to feel “faraway, so close”.
APOCALYPSE NOW is a perfect movie. But I’ll write about PULP FICTION because it’s a lightning rod for the way film commentary is devolving into lamentable inanity. Quentin Tarantino has been taken to task for “violence against women” in his films because he wrote and directed the brilliantly hilarious sequence in which an adrenalin-filled hypodermic must be forcefully thrust into Mia Wallace’s heart or she’ll die from an inadvertent heroin overdose. The strategic jab will save a woman’s life, NOT demean or objectify her.
Next thing you know, it’ll be an affront to the timepiece-in-your-anus community that Christopher Walken should speak of such a thing to young Butch if he is not an actual practitioner of the storing of vintage watches in the tail end of his own digestive tract. PULP FICTION is a trippy triptych packed with great characters for whom we are happy or afraid as their predicaments dovetail with exquisitely unpredictable elan. Funnily enough, Jury President Clint Eastwood preferred Zhang Yimou's TO LIVE but he deferred to his fellow jurors. PULP FICTION’S bravado holds up beautifully.
PULP FICTION, Quentin Tarantino (1994): The honey bunny Amanda Plummer-Tim Roth diner scene is iconic! The whole film is pure cinema, pure cinematic madness and sheer brilliance. The viewing experience is one of a kind: a blissful, euphoric, perfectly scored ride - perhaps akin to that overdose scene or an intravenous jab of all of the above. As I was getting ready to see it for the first time, a very wise very cinephile friend of mine told me: "PULP FICTION has to be seen at night! You can't watch PULP FICTION during the day! Are you crazy?!" When I saw it - at night, might I add! - I understood why, as if the night gave it another layer of cinematic splendor. I loved it then, and will always love it (and watch it at night)!
I, DANIEL BLAKE - never have I come out of a film so moved and so upset about social injustice in my own country, especially as I was also able to interview Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, and hear the moving testimonies they had from people whose lives had been ruined when they just needed short-term kindness and help. The idea of people starving in modern Britain - well, it takes Ken Loach to make a film about it. It wasn't necessarily my favourite competition film of 2016, but it was brilliant storytelling, and I was so happy that the Palme would help get that film out to a wide audience; and so it proved, at least in the UK. (Apart from that, I'd have to pick PARASITE, as it's the one time that my favourite film's actually won the Palme!)
Like many people, I love the complexity of Jane Campion's THE PIANO, not to mention its magnetic performances - and I still remember the rush of excitement I felt as I made my way back on the train from Bradford to Leeds after a trek to see it on the big screen. But it has to be the joint winner of the Palme d'Or that year that had the most impact on me - the epic, lushly shot FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE. At the risk of being sacrilegious, I'm fairly sure I saw this on TV not at the cinema as part of a season that also included the fabulous RAISE THE RED LANTERN, both of which turned me on to just how immersive subtitled films could be and how much I had been missing by mainly going to the local multiplex.
It’s easy to forget that - amongst all the hoopla afforded to features - that Cannes also awards a Palme D’or for Best Short Film as well. Past winners have included Albert Lamorisse’s French classic THE RED BALLOON while the likes of Jane Campion and Jim Jarmusch have also picked up the Palme D’or for Best Short as part of their storied careers.
While the Short Palme D’or is indeed a way of spotting talented directors who will go on to make the features that will grace the Palais in the years to come, it is also a celebration of the medium itself and recognition of how difficult it is to make a truly memorable work that lasts only a scant few minutes.
The past few years have seen a number of excellent films walk off the award including Qiu Yang’s beguiling A GENTLE NIGHT (2017) and the powerful Lebanese animation WAVES ‘98 (Dir. Ely Dagher). But I am going to plump for 2016 winner TIMECODE (Dir. Juanjo Giménez, Spain).
The film begins with all the hallmarks of a staid drama – Luna heads into an underground carpark to take over the security nightshift from colleague Diego. It’ll be her job to sit in front of the security camera terminal and let time drift by.
But examining the security from the previous night, she notices Diego dancing in the empty carpark. So she reciprocates, doing her own steps in front of the camera and leaving Diego a timecode so he can find the footage of her on the camera. Soon the pair are communicating with each other, separated by time but unified through their movements.
On one level the film is a light hearted piece of whimsy, a subtle relationship comedy. But there’s also an underlying sense of freedom here, of rallying against a world of conformity and mundanity. The slate grey underground world of the carpark is enlivened by the freedom and movement of our protagonists (which becomes more bold and expressive as the film moves on), a spark of the creative and unfettered amongst the confines of everyday ennui. And, thinking of the film in 2020, the idea of people not being able to communicate face to face has a certain resonance about it.
A considered blend of drama and magical realism wrapped within a tight 15 minute running time, TIMECODE is an example of what the medium can do so right when in the hands of great filmmaker.