MIFF Director Jaie Laplante on Palme d'Or Contenders at Cannes

Film Fiend features dispatches from Miami International Film Festival Director Jaie Laplante as he scopes flicks on the indie film festival circuit.

As another Cannes Film Festival winds down, all the chic cineastes here on the Croisette are pretending not to care about the Grand Jury prizes, awarded in a glitzy ceremony before the festival's closing-night film, Christophe Honore's The Beloved. But apathy, says the Film Fiend, is the refuge of the powerless -- and certainly one understands the frustration of trying to predict the jury's selection process, which is often fraught with politics and compromises.

It's very often the case that the Palme d'Or winner, at least, will reflect the personality of the jury's president, which this year is Robert De Niro. Given his artistic personality and icon-of-American-cinema status, does that give the edge to Terrence Malick's symphony of Americana, The Tree of Life?  

Or one of the other America-set (but European-directed) films: This Must Be the Place, starring longtime De Niro buddy Sean Penn; Drive, the L.A. car-chase thriller starring Ryan Gosling; or The Artist, the tribute to the golden age of Hollywood silent movies?

It's a near-impossible mind puzzle, and while Film Fiend looks forward

to the results, for now I can only concentrate on what I think most

deserves to win. The two films with the highest overall critical

consensus are Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre and the

Belgium codirecting brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid With the Bike. Both films, especially the latter, are wonderfully

pure, simple, and powerful creations, created by true auteurs working at

the top of their game.  

The Dardennes are the most deserving but have already won the

Palme d'Or twice before, and if they win a third time, it would make them

the only filmmakers in Cannes history to achieve such a feat. I don't

see that happening. If the jury aligns with the critics, it's more

likely to go to Kaurismaki, who has never won the top prize at Cannes.

Of course, if neither wins any prizes, no one will

remember that they were leading contenders today!

Another great filmmaker to have never won the Palme d'Or

despite frequent appearances at Cannes is Spain's Pedro Almodóvar. His new film and first real genre thriller, La Piel Que Habito (The

Skin I Live In) has been receiving generally positive buzz here in Cannes

although the praise is marked with reservations that the new film isn't

as "resonant" as his masterpieces of the past decade, Talk to Her and Bad Education.  

Film Freak scoffs at such a notion -- La Piel Que Habito is vintage and

purely delicious Almodóvar -- rapes, murders, kidnappings, gender

mutation, mothers, Hitchcockian music, the color red, and Antonio

Banderas, who hasn't had so much fun onscreen in years. It's all a

total delight, from start to finish, moves quicker and dazzles

considerably more than Volver and Broken Embraces, his last two

wonderful films. The only thing missing is Almodóvar regular Rossy de

Palma, who isn't in the film but was certainly stealing the show on the

red carpet at the premiere in a typically outrageous, vintage Jean Paul

Gaultier S&M-style dress.

Denmark, all 16,000 square miles of it, made great strides in its quest

for global cinema domination. Not only is this tiny country the

world's current Oscar holder (for Susanne Bier's In a Better World),

but also it had two headline-grabbing directors in this year's

competition. Lars von Trier stirred up some of the most polarizing

controversy the festival has seen in years; just before the debut of his

epic new film, Melancholia, von Trier shocked everybody by

sympathizing with Hitler "the man" and making disparaging remarks about

Israel, leading the festival to take the awkward step of having him

declared persona non grata and banning him from stepping within 100 feet of

the Palais.   

Nikki Beach promptly canceled his afterparty, and von Trier's apology

(offering the excuse that he was "egged on") fell on deaf ears.  The

head of the Danish Film Institute condemned his comments.  

Behind all of this is a major, sometimes-murky, but undeniably

affecting film -- Armageddon meets The Celebration, as some critics

have described it. U.S. distributor Magnolia's once-high hopes for Melancholia might now be dashed, but although the film itself remains in

the competition, the things that everyone is talking about are the

nature of von Trier's intentions, the festival's reaction, and the

filmmaker's future. If the film wins any major prizes, it's

sure to be perceived as a political statement.  

Also from Denmark, Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish, hyperkinetic,

hyperviolent take on L.A. film noir, Drive, was a major thrill ride,

with Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver who seeks out extra cash

by working nights as a driver on real-life crime heists. Cary Mulligan

and Albert Brooks (in an unusual role, as a very evil guy) also


Reminiscent of slick '80s noirs such as 8 Million Ways to Die and To

Live & Die in LA. (complete with a cheesy, synthesized, Giorgio

Moroder-style soundtrack), Drive won points for Refn's trademark

tight, muscular filmmaking but lost a few members of the Cannes crowd with its

rather high-concept story (which wraps up in just 80 minutes).

Film Fiend said he wouldn't try to predict the Palme d'Or

winner, but old habits are hard to resist. The sleeper hit of the

festival (you'd have to be a true humbug to hate it) is one of the most

original: French director Michel Hazavanicius's black-and-white

silent film, The Artist.  Yes, you read that correctly: a silent

movie, with only music, just like the kind they stopped making in 1929

when sound was invented. Not an homage to a silent movie -- an actual silent movie. Film Fiend is still in shock that anyone would dare such a

thing in the age of 3-D and $300 million budgets (Avatar).  

Yet this sweet love story -- involving the world's number one silent movie star, who can't get work after the advent of sound, and the chorus-line girl who becomes a megastar once the talkies took off -- is a

charmer.  Already snapped up for U.S. distribution by the Weinstein

Company, which plans to release it around Christmas, it's

exactly the type of underdog, feel-good film (like Shakespeare in Love

and The King's Speech) that has scooped up Oscars for the company. De Niro and friends might just get the jump on the Oscar campaign by

giving it the biggest golden palm leaf tomorrow night.

(Editor's note: The Palm d'Or was awarded to Tree of Life 24 hours after this post was written.)

Read Jaie Laplante's three earlier dispatches from Cannes 2011 here.

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