Predicting winners is always a fool’s errand in the Un Certain Regard section (the second-most prestigious competition of the Cannes Film Festival) and so it proved tonight, as the little-heralded French entry “The Worst Ones” (“Les Pires”), a debut feature from female directing duo Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, was handed the top prize by jury president Valeria Golino — one of four first films to be recognized at the ceremony.
A playful film-within-a-film about the challenges and perils of street casting — following a film crew seeking out local non-professional actors for a shoot in a working-class French town — “The Worst Ones” surged past a number of buzzier critical favorites and hot distribution prospects to claim the award.
It’s the second consecutive female-directed feature to be named best in show: last year’s Prix Un Certain Regard went to Russian director Kira Kovalenko’s gritty coming-of-age drama “Unclenching the Fists.” Socially conscious but mordantly comic, Akoka and Gueret’s quirky film is also one to watch for the festival’s Camera d’Or award for first features, set to be presented at tomorrow’s closing night awards ceremony.
Bringing some star power to the winners list is Luxembourgish actor Vicky Krieps — recently claimed by Hollywood in such films as “Old” and “Phantom Thread” — who shared the Best Performance prize for her sly, sensual turn in Marie Kreutzer’s “Corsage,” an elegant postmodern revision of the legend of Empress Elisabeth in Austria.
Variety’s Jessica Kiang was among the hordes of critics singing the praises of Krieps and the film: “We’ve heard of actors disappearing into roles before,” she wrote, “but rarely does a role so disappear into an actor, and become all the stronger, more subversive and persuasive for it.” (She also starred opposite the last Gaspard Ulliel in a second Un Certain Regard selection, the romantic melodrama “More Than Ever,” though the jury’s citation was for “Corsage” only.) Krieps shared the award with French rising star Adam Bessa, whose star turn in the Tunisian social drama “Harka” inspired Tahar Rahim comparisons from critics.
The runner-up Jury Prize went to another debut feature, this one a clear crowd favorite: “Joyland,” the first Pakistani film ever to screen at the festival. Director Saim Sadiq’s tender-hearted, luminously shot queer drama follows the burgeoning relationship between a married man and a transgender exotic dancer in working-class Lahore, and prompted a rapturous standing ovation at its premiere earlier this week. Many were tipping it to take the top prize, given its combination of popular appeal and history-making background; it, too, enters tomorrow’s awards a strong Camera d’Or contender.
Ditto yet another first fiction feature, Romanian entry “Metronom.” A youth-focused political drama set against the Communist regime of the 1970s, it took the Best Director award for Alexandru Belc, a former docmaker with prior experience as an AD and script supervisor on such key Romanian New Wave milestones as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Police Adjective.”
Continuing the run of success for newcomers, French talent Lola Quivoron took the jury’s special “Coup de Coeur” Award (translating as a blow to the heart, or a besotted crush) for her narrative debut “Rodeo,” a propulsive, flashily shot portrait of a reckless young woman joining a motorcycle gang. Preventing the freshmen from having a clean sweep — only just — was Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Maha Haj, who landed Best Screenplay for her sophomore feature “Mediterranean fever,” a mordant parable of modern ennui and Palestinian-Israeli tensions in a Haifa suburb.
Among the films passed over, then, by Italian actor-filmmaker Golino and her fellow jurors — including Oscar-nominated American director Debra Granik, French musician Benjamin Biolay and actors Joanna Kulig and Edgar Ramirez — were Davy Chou’s buzzy Sony Pictures Classics acquisition “Return to Seoul,” Riley Keough’s co-directing debut “War Pony,” Agnieszka Smoczynska’s Letitia Wright-starring tearjerker “The Silent Twins” and Hlynur Palmason’s austere, visually ravishing religious drama “Godland,” which drew some of the festival’s most ecstatic reviews.
In her preamble to the awards, Golino stressed the difficulty of winnowing down the competition, describing this year’s selection as “a tour-de-force of talent” and commending the filmmakers for their “bravery in looking at survival and existence, in the present and past, [in ways] that cannot be ignored.” “We want to see more work from all these artists,” she continued, before declining to give a specific motivation behind each prize. “We could give you many boring specifics, but the films speak for themselves, and we don’t want to diminish them by giving reasons. We just want you to watch them, on the big screen.”
Prix Un Certain Regard: “The Worst Ones,” Lise Akoka, Romane Gueret
Jury Prize: “Joyland,” Saim Sadiq
Best Director: Alexandru Belc, “Metronom”
Best Performance: Vicky Krieps, “Corsage” and Adam Bessa, “Harka”
Best Screenplay: Maha Haj, “Mediterranean Fever”
Coup de Coeur Award: “Rodeo,” Lola Quivoron