Cannes: Will ‘The Assassin’ Slay the Competition?

The Assassin Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Given the number of films in competition (19), the correspondingly infinite number of possible award/talent configurations, and the sheer impossibility of guessing at the individual and collective tastes of nine jurors, predicting the major award winners at the Cannes Film Festival is obviously a fool’s errand — and one that our critics on the Croisette have gladly undertaken.


Palme d’Or: “The Assassin.” Word on the street — and among British bookies — is that my own favorite film of the fest, Yorgos Lanthimos’ high-wire relationship fantasy “The Lobster,” is the one to beat, though whether that’s based on honest hearsay or a projection of the Coen brothers’ taste for dryer-than-dust comedy, I can’t say. As much as it would thrill me to see such a singular combination of concept-y formalism and perverse heart-tugging take the prize, I have a hard time seeing it as the unifying consensus pick of a highly diverse jury. Likelier, I think, is that revered Taiwanese veteran Hou Hsiao-hsien takes it for his incontrovertibly exquisite redesign of the traditional wuxia picture. It’s not the most emotionally immediate film in competition, but its sheer mastery of craft is overwhelming — and while Hou has arguably been due a Palme for some time, his eight-year absence from feature filmmaking lends event status to this particular return.

Grand Prix: “Son of Saul.” It’s been 26 years since a freshman filmmaker took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and while it’s a strong possibility that 38-year-old Laszlo Nemes could follow in the footsteps of one Steven Soderbergh — whatever happened to that guy? — something tells me the jury will hand him the runner-up gong, giving him something further to aim for with his follow-up. Either way, I find it hard to imagine this tough-minded Auschwitz study failing to pick up some major hardware: Since its sneak-attack premiere early in the festival, it’s inspired some of the fiercest critical conversation (and commercial bidding) on the Croisette. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a shoo-in for the Camera d’Or prize for the festival’s best first film: That separate jury usually prefers to champion under-exposed work, and has never picked a winner from the competition.

Jury prize: “Mon roi.” Technically the bronze medal, though arguably a shade less prestigious than best director, this prize is often reserved for auteurs on the rise — though last year’s cheeky tie between 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard and 25-year-old Xavier Dolan (a juror this year) proved that’s not always the case. Former wild-child actress Maiwenn took this very award in 2011 for her third feature Polisse, but there’s no shame in being held at this rung of the ladder: It was good enough for Andrea Arnold in 2006 and 2009. As was the case with “Polisse,” this expressive study of unruly passion has proven divisive: for every critic, like Variety‘s own Peter Debruge, who finds Maiwenn’s style “boldly ultra-romantic,” there’s another who deems it merely obnoxious. Chances are the jury may be similarly split, but if it has ardent defenders fighting its corner, this could be a compromise reward. And in a year where the festival’s second-class treatment of women has hit more of a nerve than usual, a prize for a female director would count for a lot.

Best director: Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario.” Since its premiere earlier this week, the consensus regarding Canadian auteur Villeneuve’s muscular drug-war thriller — even among its keenest admirers — is that it’s not the sort of film that wins awards at Cannes. I’m less certain. Sure, its chances of winning the Palme are approximately zero: It’s too conventional, too evocative of other films on the same subject (from “Traffic” to “Heli”) and not a sufficiently idiosyncratic auteur statement to come out on top. But juries can reserve this award for filmmakers on the more commercial end of the arthouse spectrum whose directorial craft is nonetheless beyond reproach: Nicolas Winding Refn, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and last year’s winner Bennett Miller all spring to mind. The sheer punchy precision of cutting, shotmaking and sonic design in “Sicario” impressed even those unpersuaded by the film’s rhetoric; Villeneuve will surely have heavier Cannes hitters in the future, and this award could be a placeholder for those.

Best actor: Vincent Lindon, “The Measure of a Man.” Friday’s premiere of Michel Franco’s sobering character study “Chronic” has prompted a surge of betting on Tim Roth’s delicate, ambiguity-ridden turn as a palliative-care nurse whose tender bedside manner masks painful secrets. You’ll hear no complaining from me if the Brit wins for what may even be the finest work of his career, but I’m going to stick by my earlier conviction that a similarly steadfast character actor from the local side of the Channel will receive his due. For over 30 years, Vincent Lindon’s hangdog integrity has been an asset to filmmakers ranging from Claude Lelouch to Claire Denis, but he’s never won a major award. That could change now: His headlining turn as a laid-off factory worker in Stephane Brize’s well-received economic-crisis drama has won him some of the most adulatory notices of his career, with Variety‘s Scott Foundas describing it as a “veritable master class in understated humanism.”

Best actress: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, “Carol.” Though it has been perhaps the most broadly acclaimed film in competition, I wouldn’t be shocked if Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s intimate lesbian love story left the Croisette empty-handed: Major American successes can be passed over by juries who presume such films will be amply rewarded down the line. (The Coens themselves learned this in 2007, when “No Country for Old Men” won nada: That year’s jury president, Stephen Frears, admitted in an interview that they admired it, but didn’t think it needed the profile boost.) Still, I’m banking on the film’s roundly adored leads to jointly edge this win over a healthily competitive field that includes Zhao Tao, Emmanuelle Bercot and Margherita Buy — not to mention recurring Cannes bridesmaid Marion Cotillard’s spectacular Lady Macbeth.

Best screenplay: “The Lobster.” Here, then, is where I think Yorgos Lanthimos’ bookies’ favorite will be rewarded. Even those unsold on its deadpan execution are likely to admit that the film is a conspicuous writers’ achievement, with a fearlessly theory-driven premise and overriding tone of literate absurdity that call the work of Charlie Kaufman (or, at a push, the Coens themselves) to mind. This is the same award that Lanthimos and regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou received at the 2011 Venice fest for their similarly arch, conceptually ambitious “Alps”; while the Greek iconoclast’s work is no less rich in directorial ideas, I’m predicting the Cannes jury will follow suit.


Palme d’Or: “The Assassin.” A wider-open field than usual, and I’ve heard plausible arguments for Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul” (the daring choice), Todd Haynes’ “Carol” (the consensus choice) and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” (the divisive choice). Picking “The Assassin” reflects a measure of wishful thinking on my part, since Hou Hsiao-hsien’s staggeringly gorgeous wuxia epic struck me as the film of the festival by far, if hardly the easiest entry for a jury to rally around. Still, amid all the (probably pointless) speculation as to what will the Coen brothers will go for, I have a hunch that Hou’s glowing international reputation — and the fact that he’s returned from a long absence with the most daring and dazzling film of his career — will hold some sway with these sharp-witted cinephiles. (Fun fact: The Coens have competed alongside Hou at Cannes twice before, and even won directing prizes both years, for 1996’s “Fargo” and 2001’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There”; Hou’s “Goodbye South, Goodbye” (1996) went home empty-handed, while “Millennium Mambo” (2001) picked up a technical prize for sound.)

Grand Prix: “Carol.” It’s possible, even likely, that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara will share the best actress prize for their beautifully harmonized performances in this stellar adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s lesbian romance — an outcome that would rule out any other major prize for “Carol” except screenplay. Yet such is the achievement of Todd Haynes’ bracingly specific yet universally resonant drama, especially in a largely middling competition, that I suspect the jury may go the “Inside Llewyn Davis” route by anointing a widely acclaimed Hollywood prestige drama with likely year-end award prospects. Not to be ruled out: “Son of Saul,” which many feel is good enough for the Palme, and certainly good enough for runner-up.

Jury prize: “My Mother.” I’d love to be wrong on this one, but Nanni Moretti’s perfectly pleasant dramedy has many defenders and relatively few outright haters — and even the latter would concede the quality of Margherita Buy’s performance as a frazzled director coping with the double whammy of her mom’s terminal illness and a nightmarish film shoot. In an especially competitive year for best actress, though, a consolation prize for the film seems more likely — a way of honoring a Palme laureate for a likable minor work (shades of Ken Loach’s 2012 jury prize winner, “The Angel’s Share”). (Fun fact: Moretti won his Palme for “The Son’s Room” in 2001, the same year the Coens won best director for “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Best director: Laszlo Nemes, “Son of Saul.” This award often favors bold, uncomfortably provocative visions (see: Amat Escalante, “Heli”; Carlos Reygadas, “Post tenebras lux”; Brillante Mendoza, “Kinatay”), and Nemes’ unnervingly subjective view of the Holocaust, a subject it circles both obliquely and relentlessly, certainly fits the bill. Making up in sheer formal commitment what it may lack in emotional impact, “Son of Saul” is the very definition of a director’s film: From first frame to last, you feel you’re in the hands of a filmmaker in full command of the medium, which is more than can be said of some of Nemes’ older, more experienced brethren in competition. Other plausible contenders: Justin Kurzel for his prodigiously blood-soaked interpretation of “Macbeth,” Denis Villeneuve for his technically immaculate work on “Sicario,” and, assuming they don’t place higher, Sorrentino and Hou.

Best actor: Michael Caine, “Youth.” My sense is that Sorrentino’s film will win something; he’s gone home empty-handed every time out since 2008’s “Il divo,” and he was overlooked two years ago for arguably his finest picture, “The Great Beauty.” In this companion piece to that Oscar winner for best foreign-language film, Caine does typically soulful work as an aging sybarite reflecting on a lifetime’s worth of triumphs and regrets; a victory here would be an ideal first step en route to the year-end accolades that, if the early buzz is to be believed, are possibly headed his way. Personally, Vincent Lindon would get my vote for his terrifically unshowy performance in Stephane Brize’s “The Measure of a Man,” probably the strongest French film in competition, while Tim Roth’s quietly restrained work in Michel Franco’s “Chronic” is no less deserving. Longer shots: Sri Lankan child soldier-turned-actor-writer Jesuthasan Antonythasan for his title turn in Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan”; Toby Jones’ delightful supporting performance as a foolish monarch in Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales”; and Michael Fassbender’s fairly mesmerizing work in “Macbeth.”

Best actress: Zhao Tao, “Mountains May Depart.” Despite a hugely problematic final act, Jia Zhangke’s time-hopping triptych is his most emotionally affecting work in years, cohering almost entirely on the strength of a deeply felt performance from his wife and regular leading lady. Aging persuasively over a quarter-century timespan, Zhao turns the simplest of human gestures — shaping a dumpling, dancing in the snow, listening to a song with her son — into piercing little arias of heartbreak. Still, I’m basing my hunch on the assumption that a major award for “Carol” will keep Blanchett and Mara out of contention here, although we shouldn’t count out Buy for “My Mother”; Emmanuelle Bercot for Maiwenn’s “Mon roi”; Kalieaswari Srinivasan for “Dheepan”; or Marion Cotillard, who could see her Cannes losing streak end at last with Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth.” (That Cotillard is starring in juror Xavier Dolan’s next movie, “It’s Only the End of the World,” surely won’t hurt.)

Best screenplay: “The Lobster.” Blindly co-signing Guy here. I haven’t seen “The Lobster” yet (an oversight that will be rectified tomorrow, I hope), but the general admiration for what sounds like another Lanthimos-directed conceptual tour de force is the stuff screenwriting prizes are made of. Another possibility would be Phyllis Nagy’s skillful adaptation of “Carol,” especially if the jury exercises its option to give its screenplay award and an acting prize to the same movie.