Cannes Winners Underscore Contrast Between Creators and Critics

Rarely has a list of jury selections felt so disconnected from the picture painted by the press.

CANNES — We say it every year — often repeatedly — over the course of Oscar season, as we puzzle over the quirks and oversights of the Academy’s choices: Actors and filmmakers are not critics.

We don’t say it as often at the Cannes Film Festival, though it’s just as often applicable. For every year the Cannes jury — composed mostly of working industry professionals — echoes their approval of a critics’ pet in Competition (“Blue is the Warmest Color” or “Amour,” to name two recent Palme d’Or winners), there’s another where they express a very different preference.

Last year provided a good example of that, as Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” took the top prize from a Coen brothers-led jury, despite a critical reception that was more respectable than ecstatic. That mild divergence, as it turned out, was a mere warm-up act for the surprises of this year’s Competition awards, which left the festival’s press contingent largely, sometimes angrily, baffled.

“How the hell did the best Cannes Competition lineup in about 15 years yield the worst set of winners?” tweeted Variety‘s newest critic Jessica Kiang as the ceremony concluded — with veteran British auteur Ken Loach taking his second Palme d’Or for, “I, Daniel Blake.” She wasn’t alone. Gallic cinema bible Cahiers du Cinema put it most melodramatically: “A beautiful Competition wasted by a blind jury,” they tweeted in French.

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Loach’s film was by no means a derided winner. The film has dedicated champions — Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman among them — and its politically topical plea for welfare reform in the U.K. drew a strong emotional response from Cannes audiences. (Full disclosure: Due to conflicting assignments, I didn’t see it.) But critical consensus appeared to decree it nothing new, another well-executed Loachian slice of social realism, but not the most arresting or exciting pick for the loftiest prize in world cinema. (Ten years ago, Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” drew similarly tempered reactions before landing a surprise Palme win.)

If Loach’s win drew a resigned shrug from many Cannes critics, that’s perhaps because they’d already exhausted their ire on the previous announcement, the Grand Prix. That went to famously stroppy Quebecois prodigy Xavier Dolan for “It’s Only the End of the World” — a title that could aptly describe many critics’ wounded reaction to its win.

Dolan’s latest, a hysterically pitched dysfunctional family drama shot in relentless close-up, drew the worst reviews of the fest that weren’t for Sean Penn’s “The Last Face,” prompting dismayed reactions even from many critics who had championed his previous work — to which the 27-year-old director responded in kind with a series of piqued interviews that let his detractors know precisely what he thought of them.

Boos circulated in the Cannes press room after Dolan’s name was called — not an unfamiliar sound in Cannes, where catcalls greet a lot of work that, for better or worse, tests its audience. We heard it at the press screening for Olivier Assayas’ sleek, strange, ambiguity-ridden ghost story “Personal Shopper” — which took the best director prize tonight, shared with former Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) for “Graduation,” a film that notched up fine reviews without many critics saying it ranked alongside his best work.

Even Andrea Arnold’s undisciplined but rapturous “American Honey” got its share of festival boos — and was rewarded with the Jury Prize, the third of Arnold’s career. (If juries didn’t change every year, one might have thought to switch things up a little. But it’s important to note that juries vote with little sense of what has gone before. Again, they aren’t journalists.)

Cannes, of course, should be a platform where difficult, divisive films can thrive and win awards, and I’d be disinclined to trust any critic who found all the aforementioned titles beneath consideration. (For the record, I personally found Assayas’ provocation enthralling, and Dolan’s excruciating.) But rarely has a collective list of Cannes jury selections felt quite so disconnected from the picture painted by critics of that year’s festival.

This year, many of the Competition titles most lavishly acclaimed by critics — from Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” to Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” — left empty-handed, while others judged to be sub-par or merely good by their celebrated makers’ standards (the Dolan and the Mungiu, but also Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”) earned prizes. Opinions may vary on their worthiness, but it’s hard to deny that many of this year’s jury choices feel complacent, right down to the recurring category wins, a decade apart, for Loach and Arnold.

The most prominent victim of that apparent complacency was German director Maren Ade. Her moving, wildly unconventional family comedy “Toni Erdmann” was the clear critical breakout hit of the festival, topping every critics’ poll at the fest by a notable margin and scooping the FIPRESCI critics’ prize the night before the ceremony. I was one of many on the Croisette who predicted that the narrative inventiveness and emotional pull of Ade’s film would carry it to a Palme win. Instead, it received zilch.

That’s a disappointment not just to fans of the film, but those who were hoping the jury’s choices would reflect what had become the festival’s major talking point: the unusually high presence of female-driven stories in the Competition. As the likes of “Toni Erdmann,” “American Honey,” Kleber Mendonca Filho’s rich Sonia Braga vehicle “Aquarius” and yesterday’s surprise package “Elle” gained ardent fans, the streak led many to hope the jury might anoint the second female Palme winner in history, after Jane Campion 23 years ago.

Miller’s jury, less preoccupied than we are with identifying such trends, didn’t play ball, assembling a list of winning films dominated by male protagonists and perspectives, with only Arnold present to fly the flag for female filmmakers. That’s the jury’s prerogative, of course — they should award the films they like most, not those they feel most fit a certain zeitgeist. But it was a pointed underlining of just how differently jurors and critics viewed the standout virtues of this year’s Cannes program.

The key difference is a simple one. Most critics at Cannes return to the festival year after year, viewing and reviewing the selection each time; Kirsten Dunst and Donald Sutherland, to name two of this year’s jurors, do not. While “I, Daniel Blake’s” polemic storytelling seemed old hat to many critics on the Croisette, it may well have been a revelation to an industry peer who’s less au fait with Loach’s style — and perhaps likelier than more academically-inclined critics to prioritize message over medium.

Similar arguments can be made for other winners this year. “’The Salesman’ is fine,” tweeted Telegraph critic Robbie Collin after the film took best actor and screenplay — the only awards, under current Cannes rules, permitted to be given in tandem, which indicates that the jury faction pushing for Farhadi’s film was an insistent one. “But the fact this Farhadi won two prizes makes me wonder how many others the jurors have seen.”

That may seem a snobbish attitude: Cinematic value doesn’t have to be dictated by those fortunate enough to see everything, and get paid for the privilege. But that degree of exposure to, and absorption of, film can yield a different perspective, one that often pursues artistic innovation and bracing identity politics over more conventional but emotionally rewarding storytelling. Awards can be given for either: It’s important to remember, away from the critics’ kvetching, how many conflicted motives, and how much jury infighting, might lie behind this year’s frustrating list of winners. Critics and jurors may come to Cannes from very different places, but it might well be that no one feels justice was entirely done tonight.

Except Xavier Dolan.

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