Wild Palmes

Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 179 minutes.

IN THE EYES OF MANY, Steven Spielberg’s jury did the right thing—or, rather, the correct thing—awarding the Palme d’Or to Abdellatif Kechiche’s critically lauded lesbian drama, Blue Is the Warmest Color. Spielberg, who showed his sensitivity to French current affairs by voicing support for his host country’s cultural exception policy at last Sunday’s awards ceremony, presented the Cannes film festival’s top award to Kechiche and his two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, just as another horrifying antigay demonstration was wrapping up in Paris, which has this month seen hundreds of thousands of far-right and religious extremists gathering to protest the recent passage of the marriage equality law.

A Palme with symbolic weight, this was also a popular win. Kechiche’s critical supporters, especially in France, are legion, and even most of its detractors will concede that Blue is a fine showcase for two terrific young actresses: the relatively unknown Exarchopoulos as the high schooler discovering her sexuality and the increasingly poised Seydoux as the bohemian painter who initiates the younger girl into erotic pleasure and the ways of adulthood. But as a coming-out and coming-of-age narrative, Blue is so familiar as to be redundant, and Kechiche’s rather dogged, airless conception of naturalism, predicated on distended scenes and a surplus of close-ups, largely forecloses the possibility of vitality, humor, and surprise. The detailed, protracted sex scenes—I timed the longest at seven minutes, though some wishfully clocked it at twenty—were the talk of the festival, as they were meant to be, drawing feverish praise, defensive praise, and more than a few feminist disquisitions on the male gaze. Kechiche did not exactly help his cause with the last faction by saying in interviews that he cast Exarchopoulos when he took her to lunch and was struck by her “way of eating” lemon tart; the anti-Blue camp also gained some traction with a blunt post-Palme blog post by Julie Maroh, who had written the original graphic novel and termed the film’s erotic scenes “ridiculous.”

The jury saved its other top honors for two films that seemed to have amassed the least opposition in a lackluster competition. The runner-up Grand Prix went to the Coen Brothers’ atypically fond folk-scene chronicle Inside Llewyn Davis and the third-place Jury Prize to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father like Son, a typically tender domestic melodrama about the painful aftermath of a postnatal mixup. Meanwhile, in a presumed bid for nominal edginess, best director went for the second year running to a Mexican troublemaker, although on the basis of his brutalizing narco-porn entry Heli, the young Amat Escalante lacks the instinctive hell-raising smarts of last year’s winner Carlos Reygadas.

Alain Guiraudie, Stranger by the Lake, 2013, color, sound, 97 minutes.

Cannes makes no secret or apology of its attempts to build and sustain a pantheon. But the prevalence of brand names and inner-circle auteurs means less room for discovery, and the overall impression, especially acute this year, is of an aversion to risk. The recent insistence on bringing genre pictures into the fold—a tendency in the official selection as well as the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars—has only exacerbated the overfamiliarity. This year that meant turning an unwarranted competition spotlight on films like Takashi Miike’s clunky policier Shield of Straw and Nicolas Winding Refn’s turgid bloodbath Only God Forgives. Amid the surfeit of dead-end genre pastiches, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin—winner of the screenplay prize—stood out as an unusually purposeful reinvention of a time-honored form, applying the martial arts movie’s sense of aggrieved injustice to the inequities of modern-day China.

Given the lockstep predictability of the competition, the Un Certain Regard parallel section remains both essential and frustrating, a hodgepodge of work too weak, too radical, or too bereft of movie stars to earn the ceremonial pomp of a red-carpet walk. One highlight here was the overdue Cannes debut of the Philippine master Lav Diaz, whose devastating Norte, the End of History, at just over four hours, demanded of its viewers perhaps the scarcest commodity at the world’s most clamorous film festival: patience. Spiraling out from a murder that links a disgruntled would-be intellectual and a kind family man, Norte immerses itself in everyday detail and surreptitiously attains the realm of mythic tragedy. At their best, Diaz’s marathon movies reveal just how much others leave out. With its rich colors and relatively streamlined narrative—his films are typically in black-and-white and last upward of six hours—Norte may be his most resounding and accessible demonstration yet of duration as a means of complexity and depth.

Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 123 minutes. Eve and Adam (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston).

Also consigned to Un Certain Regard, Alain Guiraudie’s critical hit Stranger by the Lake—winner of a directing prize and the Queer Palm for gay-themed films—unfolds entirely in the vicinity of a nudist pickup spot that in the course of the movie becomes a crime scene. If the girl-on-girl sequences in Blue Is the Warmest Color are showstoppers by design, Guiraudie films his male characters’ hard-core dalliances, all conducted al fresco, with the same matter-of-fact sensuousness as ripples on a lake and the shifting light of dusk. A lethally precise film resting on a provocative tangle of wayward impulses—at times it suggests Cruising as directed by Hong Sang-soo—Stranger is many films in one: a minimalist thriller, a work of subcultural ethnography, and above all a tale of amour fou.

Back in the competition, two idiosyncratic bright spots emerged in the home stretch, although both—from American directors more popular abroad—divided critics and left empty-handed. In James Gray’s The Immigrant, a Polish woman’s arrival on Ellis Island in 1921 marks the start of an absorbing saga of disillusionment. The period world that Gray creates on limited means is at once vividly detailed and magically circumscribed; his taste for operatic emotion is here held in check by a withholding narrative and the characters, enigmatic yet sharply etched, are played with note-perfect ambiguity by Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. Misleadingly branded a vampire movie, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a wry, tender portrait of (extremely) long-term coupledom and encroaching mortality, as experienced by a pair of centuries-old bloodsuckers (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton). The couple’s seen-it-all perspective accommodates both goofball whimsy and apocalyptic ennui. Achingly sad and ravishingly beautiful, Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare gift from our most youthful sixty-year-old filmmaker: an autumnal work that is also a rejuvenating one.

The 66th Cannes film festival ran May 15–26, 2013.