FROM WITHIN the media hothouse that emerges annually around the Cannes Film Festival, every edition unfolds as a narrative in progress, from the off-season speculation to the announcement of the lineup through to the bleary days and boozy nights of the event itself, culminating with the final punctuation of the awards ceremony. Which films were not ready and which were snubbed? Did the official competition snatch up the strongest titles or was it upstaged by the parallel sections? Based on the composite of juror personalities and preferences, and the vagaries of behind-the-scenes politics, what will win? These discussions must seem especially trivial outside the bubble of the Croisette, and they are ephemeral and quickly forgotten even within, given how little agreement there typically is on such matters. What was unusual about the sixty-ninth edition was the speed and conviction with which the Cannes press corps agreed upon this year’s takeaway theme, which was that the jury messed it up, badly. Faced with an uncommonly robust and varied competition, the nine jurors led by the Australian director George Miller unveiled a roster of winners that prompted press-room heckles and Twitter insults—in part for the films that were awarded but mainly for those that were not.
No one in their right mind would take jury prizes as reliable guides to excellence or posterity. Bold, statement-making choices—like the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) from the Tim Burton jury—are exceptions, as a look back at previous laureates will show. Far more common are compromise picks, bids at topical relevance, safe bets that conform to festival-sanctioned notions of seriousness and quality. This year’s palmarès were in keeping with tradition: Ken Loach, who holds the record for most films in competition, picked up his second Palme d’Or for the welfare-state broadside I, Daniel Blake; most of the other big winners (Xavier Dolan, Cristian Mungiu, Andrea Arnold) already have multiple Cannes awards to their names, and with the exception of Dolan’s histrionic family-reunion chamber piece It’s Just the End of the World, all had their share of admirers. The extreme rancor that greeted these profoundly unsurprising prizes could be attributed to the total shut-out of the festival’s most universally adored film, the German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which screened on the first weekend to laughter, tears, and several rounds of spontaneous mid-movie applause.
The across-the-board enthusiasm for Toni Erdmann represented something truly rare at Cannes: a consensus favorite in what is otherwise an arena of cross-purposes and deep, even tribal divisions. In outline the movie—about a filial rift that is gradually bridged—seems familiar enough: Ines (Sandra Hüller), a no-nonsense corporate consultant/hatchet-woman on assignment in Bucharest, endures a surprise visit from her big-lug father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a retired music teacher with a fondness for pranks and disguises. The genius of Toni Erdmann—named for Winfried’s bewigged, dentured alter-ego, the clownish fiction that sets in motion the film’s epiphanies—is the way it simultaneously deepens the central relationship while widening in scope to consider the dehumanizing toll of corporate culture, the insidious creep of globalization, the tragicomedy of generational estrangement, the demands on women in the workplace, and so much more.
“Are you happy?” Winfried asks Ines early in the film. It’s an irksome query (“Happy is a strong word,” Ines demurs), yet Toni Erdmann keeps asking it, never shying from the pain that often comes with answering that question. Not yet forty, Ade announces herself here as a true heir to John Cassavetes. An unsentimental humanist—and a very funny one to boot—she shares with Cassavetes an alertness to the role of performance in the theater of everyday life and a belief that the most revealing human behavior takes place on the edge of social acceptability. Pitched in a realist register that can tilt without warning into the surreal, filled with broadly comic set pieces (a karaoke showstopper, a nude birthday party) that are also grace notes of extraordinary subtlety, Toni Erdmann at its best suggests nothing less than the Cassavetes of Love Streams.
While Toni Erdmann was hardly an out-of-nowhere surprise for those who knew Ade’s similarly sharp and clear-eyed Everyone Else and The Forest for the Trees, in the context of Cannes—which has largely overlooked the Berlin School, the most vital wing of contemporary German cinema—it felt like something new, perhaps even part of a larger gesture of rejuvenation. The festival’s unmatched sense of brand loyalty has lent a plodding inexorability to its parade of pantheon veterans, as well as prompted frequent observations that the true discoveries can be found outside the main competition, away from the glare of the Palais des Festival’s much-photographed red carpet. Not so this year. Many usual suspects were present and accounted for, but France’s Alain Guiraudie and Romania’s Cristi Puiu, midcareer risk-takers who had won prizes in the parallel Un Certain Regard section, were elevated to the competition for the first time, and a pair of Cannes newbies—Ade (on her third feature) and Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho (on his second)—were installed in the firmament right away.
These four newcomers—along with Paul Verhoeven, back in competition for the first time since Basic Instinct with Elle, a rape-revenge/rape-fantasy head-spinner in which the roles of victim and predator are far from fixed—made for the most exciting Cannes competition in years. In Staying Vertical Guiraudie combines the formal control of his 2013 breakthrough Stranger by the Lake with the shape-shifting fabulism of his earlier films. The result is, among other things, a sidelong look at the human cycle of birth, procreation, and death, the last represented in an unforgettable conflation of euthanasia and borderline necrophilia. Puiu’s Sieranevada adopts the staple situation of countless domestic dramas: an extended-family gathering, in this case the memorial of a patriarch in a labyrinthine Bucharest apartment. Brilliantly staged, it’s a film of partial glimpses and slyly obscured information: Rituals are anticipated and delayed, doors open and close, and the camera hovers at thresholds and in corridors, panning quizzically left and right. As the claustrophobia intensifies, the heated back-and-forths—from reminiscences of the old Communist days to theories about the present age of terror—coalesce into a pointilist portrait of personal and social malaise. Mendonca Filho also works on both micro and macro scales in Aquarius, his much-anticipated follow-up to his 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds, constructing a film that is at once an up-to-the-minute study of Brazil’s class and economic tensions; a sensuous memory piece about the meanings we invest in places, objects, and music; and a lovingly tailored vehicle for the ever luminous Sonia Braga. (The Aquarius cast and crew were also responsible for the festival’s most stirring red-carpet walk, holding aloft signs describing the attempts to impeach Dilma Rousseff as a coup d’etat.)
The best films at Cannes 2016, all of which left empty-handed, were the toughest to classify, and they were a necessary antidote to the prevailing tendency toward familiarity. The Cannes gauntlet often makes me think of a remark by the late, great Jacques Rivette when I interviewed him in 2008. Explaining why contemporary film culture no longer interested him, the lifelong cinephile said: “It should not be that every filmmaker makes the films you expect of them. [… I]t’s as if the filmmakers have come through on their contracts.” So it can feel with the marquee names that dominate the festival, and the sense that some of their films—the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, to name several accomplished if underwhelming examples from this year—verge on the mechanical, running as if by clockwork.
As has been the case for some time, Cannes remains light on discoveries, though the Semaine de la Critique parallel festival for first and second films did crown a worthy winner in Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas, a suggestively ambiguous, stunningly shot spiritual western–cum–head movie set in the Atlas Mountains. There was also one bright spot among the out-of-competition titles, The Death of Louis XIV, a dream pairing between Albert Serra, contemporary cinema’s great time traveler, and the one and only Jean-Pierre Léaud. The aged avatar of the nouvelle vague plays the extravagantly wigged Sun King in his final days, slowly succumbing to gangrene in his bedchamber, surrounded by devoted servants and pets and a retinue of hopeless doctors. With its hypnotic interplay of shadows and candlelight, Louis XIV provided some of the festival’s most ravishing images, as well as a mordant punchline for the ages, applicable not least to the Cannes ritual and its annual cycle of high and dashed hopes: “We’ll do better next time.”
The sixty-ninth Cannes Film Festival ran May 11 through 22.