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Zhuo-Ning Su: Parting the curtains at Cannes

Just because a film gets a standing ovation at Cannes doesn't mean it deserves one, but the whole festival is still a resounding experience.

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I’ve been stuck in the Cannes bubble for 12 days now – submerged among journalists, critics, film crews and PR teams swarming the Croisette and its neighbouring streets, tripling the local population of just over 70,000. Every single pedestrian seems to be duly accredited and Ingrid Bergman’s iconic visage stares out from the festival poster on every storefront, from bakeries to lingerie shops. Compared to the Berlinale, it’s a much more concentrated, all-encompassing experience. It might also be the only time and place where people like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke are treated like rock stars, their names whispered with reverence. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all films screened at Cannes are masterpieces. In fact, caught in the heady excitement of seeing something months ahead of the general public, 10-minute standing ovations are often given to films that are later met with a shrug from the world at large. This year’s selection has its fair share of misfires. Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, in which Matthew McConaughey travels to a suicide hotspot in Japan to die, smacks of faux-spirituality and leaves a cheap, sacrilegious aftertaste. Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s New York-set familial drama Louder Than Bombs, though just as divinely depressing as his previous work, underwhelms with its unshakeable air of affectation and forced malaise. The aforementioned Mr. Jia from China returns with Mountains May Depart, a decades-spanning melodrama that’s heartily embraced in some quarters but struck me as clunky and blatantly sentimental.

French cinema has a stronger-than-usual showing in the competition line-up this year, but most of the home-grown Palme d’Or candidates turned out to be disappointing. Director Valérie Donzelli’s incest drama Marguerite & Julien is a veritable flop with hardly any intellectual aspiration or emotional pull. Fellow female filmmaker Maïwenn’s My King, which dissects a turbulent relationship through its many highs and lows, starts off intriguingly but uses up all the goodwill after descending into interminable mundanity. Somewhat flat is also Stéphane Brizé’s well-meaning but unexciting portrait of a middle-aged man fighting for a job and his dignity in The Measure of a Man. Fortunately there’s still good ol’ Jacques Audiard, whose immigrant drama Dheepan electrifies with its muscular direction and emphatic pulse.

As solid as that movie was, it came as a big surprise when the jury chaired by the Coen brothers eventually awarded it the festival’s highest honour, because it seemed to lack that all-decisive spark of genius – unlike the less polished but much more “wow”-inducing Son of Saul (photo), the feature film debut by Hungarian writer/director László Nemes. Its subject matter – a father looking to have his child properly buried from within the horrors of Auschwitz – might not sound refreshing, but the way it puts you right in the middle of all the chaos and human atrocities feels dangerously immediate, entirely original. Also giving you something you’ve never seen before is the art-house kung fu movie The Assassin by Taiwanese maestro Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Groundbreaking in how it turns decades of genre conventions on their head and just by being insanely pretty, it’s an artistic achievement of the highest order. American auteur Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama Carol, which I queued for three hours to see, also dazzles. Finely observed, impeccably performed, gloriously styled and costumed, it creates a world of love, treachery and heartaches to such perfection you never want to leave.

In the end, Cannes is not about accreditation hierarchy or guest list placement, high heels or selfie policy. It’s about celebrating cinema with the utmost respect and adoration. No matter how tired, starved and frustrated you are, every time the lights go out in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, you can feel the hush spread through 2300 avid film fans from around the world. It’s a moment of breathtaking, almost holy anticipation. So that’s the feeling I took away with me from my first trip to the Cannes Film Festival. Even out of the bubble and back in the safety of my notably unglamorous Kiez in Berlin, the beat my heart skipped when the giant curtains parted to let out all these gorgeous, surprising, masterfully realised pictures remains palpable, resounding.  

Full list of awards:

Palme d’Or: Dheepan by Jacques Audiard

Grand Prix: Son of Saul by László Nemes

Jury Prize: The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos

Best Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien for The Assassin

Best Actor: Vincent Lindon in The Measure of a Man

Best Actress: Rooney Mara (for Carol) and Emmanuelle Bercot (for Mon Roi)

Best Screenplay: Chronic by Michel Franco

Camera d’Or (Best First Film): Land and Shade by César Augusto Acevedo

Best Short Film: Waves ’98 by Ely Dagher