CANNES, France — Wading through 20-odd movies in half as many languages, each Cannes jury supplies its own dramatic narrative, to be interpreted according to its president's presumed taste.
Days before the 61st Cannes Film Festival ended, rumors were rife that the jury was having difficulties reaching consensus. As the award ceremony commenced, president Sean Penn cited the title of the festival's closing-night film in promising the audience and the world that, as the jury's decisions were announced, "You're going to wonder What Just Happened?"
True to his word, Penn bestowed the Palme d'Or on the first French movie to win Cannes's top prize in 20 years, Laurent Cantet's The Class—an engrossing but glib account of teacher-student dynamics in a multicultural French middle school, acted by a spirited, almost entirely nonprofessional cast. That Cantet's film, the last of the 21 movies shown in competition, was (per Penn) a unanimous choice suggests that the movie offered a welcome solution to a divided jury.
Many of the other awards seemed to reflect a series of awkward compromises. The runner-up Grand Prix went to Matteo Garrone's well-received Gomorrah. While this corrosive, if slapdash, exposé of organized crime in Naples was an expected winner, few predicted that the third-place Prix du Jury would go to Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo—a bombastic phantasmagoria satirizing the late career of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti—and no one could remember the last time that two Italian movies had placed so highly, particularly as Cannes juries have traditionally displayed exquisite geographical sensitivity. (No Asian film was cited this year, not even Jia Zhangke's 24 City—a masterful and moving portrait of the most rapidly expanding economy in world history, set in the very part of China that had been ravaged by an earthquake days before the festival opened.)
In another "unanimous" decision, the Che problem was solved by declaring Benicio Del Toro best actor—the only mention that Steven Soderbergh's daring political essay would receive. As if to reproach Angelina Jolie's bereft mother in Clint Eastwood's gothic thriller Changeling, the jury anointed Sandra Corveloni best actress for her role as a single mother of four in the Brazilian directors Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas's routine favella drama Linha de Passe.
Other awards confirmed established Cannes taste. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan—who had won the Grand Prix for his 2002 Distant and the international critics' FIPRESCI prize for his 2006 Climates—was named best director for a lesser film, Three Monkeys. Similarly, the Dardenne brothers, winners of two previous Palmes d'Or, were commended with a screenplay prize for Lorna's Silence, perhaps the weakest film of their career.
The best evidence of a divided jury was the special prize given jointly to Catherine Deneuve and Clint Eastwood. A mumbled, awkwardly worded statement explained that the award was both for their career achievements as well as the specific films each had in competition—Changeling and Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, which featured Deneuve, amid a large and talented ensemble, as a fractious family's matriarch. Both movies had been expected to receive more substantial recognition (although for many observers, the most startling omission was Ari Folman's wrenching "animated documentary" Waltz with Bashir—ignored despite, or perhaps because of, Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi's presence on the jury.) The consolation prizes appeared to have boomeranged. While Deneuve received her award with professional aplomb (despite the normally demonstrative Cannes audience's bored disinclination to greet her with the customary standing ovation), Eastwood made his feelings apparent by snubbing the ceremony entirely. Incredibly, no one was designated to accept the award on his behalf.
In happier outcomes, the Prix un Certain Regard went to Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan—an astonishing ethnographic-drama-cum-animal-movie set in the vast emptiness of the Kazakhstan steppe—and the Camera d'Or (for best first feature) was awarded to British video artist Steve McQueen for Hunger, a rigorous treatment of the passion of Irish Republican martyr Bobby Sands. The FIPRESCI jury (this year headed by former Village Voice film editor Howard Feinstein) gave its award to Kornél Mundruczó's Delta, a beautifully shot, old-fashioned Hungarian art film about the persecution of an incestuous couple that, had it been made in the bad old days, might have packed a more substantial allegorical wallop.