Ali Abbasi’s genre-bending Nordic puzzler “Border” won the top prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. It emerged victorious in a varied international field of 18 titles from newcomers and established festival favorites alike, with Sergei Loznitsa’s “Donbass,” Meryem Benm’Barek’s “Sofia,” João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora’s “The Dead and the Others” and Lukas Dhont’s “Girl” completing the list of prizewinners.
The second feature by Iranian-born, Danish-based Abbasi, the classification-defying film — based on a short story by “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist — centres on a Swedish customs officer with an uncanny sense of smell, thrown into a moral and personal quandary over a suspicious traveler that upends the world as she knows it. Screening early in the festival, it swiftly became one of the buzziest titles in the section with critics and audiences alike. Variety critic Alissa Simon was among the yay-sayers, predicting “cult classic” status for “an exciting, intelligent mix of romance, Nordic noir, social realism, and supernatural horror that defies and subverts genre conventions.”
The film immediately inspired heated competition among buyers, with hip new U.S. distributor Neon — the outfit behind Oscar winner “I, Tonya” and upcoming Sundance sensation “Assassination Nation” — snagging North American rights. “Border” is only second foreign-language title in their portfolio, following French feminist thriller “Revenge”; Neon is evidently counting on strong arthouse crossover potential for Abbasi’s film.
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Though Abbasi, who was not present at the ceremony, received some attention for his 2016 debut, the Berlinale-premiered art-horror exercise “Shelley,” “Border” marks a clear breakout for the 37-year-old writer-director. The Best Director prize on the other hand, went to an auteur with established Cannes credentials: Ukraine’s Sergei Loznitsa, who opened the Un Certain Regard section with his fevered, surreal war study “Donbass.”
A sometime docmaker who continues to experiment radically with form in his narrative work, Loznitsa has been in Competition at Cannes three times, most recently with last year’s harrowing anti-administration protest “A Gentle Creature.” That he was dropped to the lower-profile Un Certain Regard strand with his latest, a study of conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and Russia’s Donetsk People’s Republic, suggests Cannes selectors may have deemed it more of a niche item than his previous work.
Variety’s Jay Weissberg agreed, forecasting that the film would “struggle to find audiences beyond Loznitsa fans,” but was nonetheless impressed by “[a scream] against a society that’s lost its humanity and can’t be bothered to care.” Loznitsa, also not present at the ceremony, sent a statement both thanking the festival and protesting Russia’s imprisonment of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
A third absent winner was Victor Polster, the 16-year-old star of Belgian entry “Girl,” who received the prize for best acting performance in the festival. The newcomer received rave notices for his moving, physically demanding portrayal of a transgender girl fighting to realize her dreams of being a ballerina, even as his casting reignited the ongoing debate over the acceptability of cisgender actors playing trans roles. Variety‘s Peter Debruge described Polster’s work as “stunning,” emphasizing the challenges of a part requiring not just refined thespian skill but impressive dance ability.
Accepting the award for Polster, the film’s director, Lukas Dhont, also underlined Polster’s physical and emotional commitment to the part, adding, “Victor showed that the most important tool for any artist is empathy.” Stating his aim to make “a film that sets examples about how young people can shape their own gender identity,” he concluded by looking ahead to “a day when homophobia and transphobia will becomes redundant.”
Moroccan writer-director Meryem Benm’Barek tearfully accepted the Best Screenplay award for her debut feature “Sofia”; a Casablanca-set drama about a 20-year-old woman facing arrest after giving birth to a baby out of wedlock, it draws heartfelt attention to the lack of women’s rights in the filmmaker’s home country. A Special Jury Prize, meanwhile, was presented to Portuguese-Brazilian duo João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora for their film “The Dead and the Others,” a visually ravishing tale of indigenous traditions and mythology in north Brazil; in their speech, the directors explained they intended the film as a rejoinder to less positive, urban-dominated portrayals of the country in its national cinema.
The awards were presented, briskly and with little preamble, by this year’s Un Certain Regard jury president Benicio Del Toro — himself an award winner at Cannes 10 years ago, when he won Best Actor in Competition for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” His fellow jurors included actor Virginie Ledoyen, filmmakers Annemarie Jacir and Kantemir Balagov, and Telluride festival director Julie Huntsinger.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival will conclude tomorrow with the selections of this year’s Competition jury, presided over by Cate Blanchett.
The full list of Un Certain Regard winners:
Un Certain Regard Award: Ali Abbasi, “Border”
Best Director: Sergei Loznitsa, “Donbass”
Best Performance: Victor Polster, “Girl”
Best Screenplay: Meryem Benm’Barek, “Sofia”
Special Jury Prize: João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, “The Dead and the Others”