Discomfort at The Cannes 2017 Awards

TheSquare

Surprises were abound at the Cannes closing night celebration, but so was discomfort and confusion.

The 70th Cannes Film Festival came to an interesting conclusion yesterday with a closing ceremony that featured several surprises, including a special anniversary prize, history-making wins, and a joint victory. As someone who attended the festival this year, the newly announced winners are intriguing for a variety of obvious and perhaps not-so-obvious reasons. That said, here’s an annotated breakdown of the big surprises of the night:

Palme d’Or: The Square

Considering there wasn’t really an agreed upon frontrunner beforehand, Ruben Östlund’s multifaceted satire taking home the top prize was not really an “upset.” That said, it was still a surprise. Though generally well-received, The Square wasn’t one of the handfuls of titles prominently featured in the awards forecasts circling the web.

However, what makes The Square a particularly intriguing choice is the nature of the film itself. I was present at the red carpet premiere of The Square—high up in the nosebleeds with a ticket I begged off a stranger (note: this is actually a common practice at Cannes), but there nonetheless—and it was by far the most bizarre and, quite frankly, uncomfortable screening I attended at the festival, and only about 40% of it had to do with the film.

Cannes jury president Pedro Almodóvar lauded The Square as being about “the dictatorship of being politically correct”—and he’s not wrong about that. However, as someone who saw the film, and then went back and looked up some of Ruben Östlund’s comments to make sure I didn’t entirely misread it somehow, that’s really not the main point. Long story short, The Square is a commentary on class, privilege, and the flimsily constructed but deeply problematic nature of the gilded alternate universes in which microcosms of the most affluent reside. The specific focus on the world of contemporary art is chosen to highlight the issue because it presents an added irony of which the film makes good use: art has the potential to either expose these problems or exemplify them.

“There are many rituals and conventions in (the art) world that make it very separate from what’s going on outside the walls of the museum,” Östlund has said of the film. “We’re trying to attack that world a little bit and make them ask questions about what we are doing.” Now, the Cannes Film Festival might not be a contemporary art museum, but it is very much a gilded alternate universe.

A personal anecdote to help illustrate the festival’s vibe: several major trade publications publish daily editions which are handed out for free during the festival featuring mostly Cannes-centric articles, sponsored content, and screening schedules. I would read them every morning to help plan my day, and quickly grew desensitized to the juxtaposition of articles either wondering if or explaining how the festival is relevant and/or what the kids would call “woke,” and interviews detailing how to properly tip a yacht staff.

Which brings me back to my bizarre and uncomfortable screening experience. You see, The Square left me uncomfortably aware of the privileges I mindlessly take for granted, the prejudices and biases I generally like to pretend I don’t have. But it really didn’t get to me until the day after I saw the film because until then I could take temporary solace in being merely within arm’s reach of being targeted by the film while sitting a stone’s throw away from people who were metaphorical bullseyes.

Östlund said he wanted to make people question themselves. The fact that The Square took home top prize, especially at this festival, in a very strange way put the film’s success in question as opposed to highlighting it.

Best Screenplay: Joint winners Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Lynne Ramsay for You Were Never Really Here

The first and very obvious surprise is the fact that there were two winners instead of one. While The Killing of a Sacred Deer was considered one of the more likely possible winners, the second film is a little bit more of an unexpected choice. The day after You Were Never Really Here premiered, Deadline ran an interview with writer/director Lynne Ramsay which detailed how when the film went into production “there wasn’t a concrete third act.” As someone who has seen the film, for all of its definite strengths, I would have been much more surprised to hear that the ending was not thrown together on the fly. Considering how the film seemed about 90% as opposed to 100% done with post-production (it didn’t even have proper end credits, just “A film by Lynne Ramsay with Joaquin Phoenix” and then a black screen with some music playing for a little bit), I had been thinking the storyline might still be in for some heavy polishing. However, considering the narrative just got a very shiny seal of approval, I’m not really thinking that’s going to happen anymore.

Best Director: Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled

Once again, Coppola was not the favorite to win in this category. However, the real story here is in how Coppola’s win makes her the second woman to take home Best Director at Cannes, with the first being the Russian director Yuliya Solntseva for the film Chronicle of Flaming Years all the way back in 1961Unfortunately, the fact that jury member Maren Ade—director of Toni Erdmann, the breakout hit of last year’s festival that was ultimately snubbed at the Closing Ceremony—was the one who accepted the award on Coppola’s behalf particularly draws into question whether Coppola’s unexpected win might have been in part motivated by a desire to combat those accusing the festival of having an issue with representation. Only time will tell if the acknowledgment of The Beguiled and You Were Never Really Here is a bellwether of an actual shift or whether it will be used to distract from the absence of any actual progress.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

Saying a win is “totally unexpected” could pretty much function as the free space on an awards show buzzword bingo card, but Phoenix’s tux-and-Converse combo when he went to the stage to accept his award suggest that he really meant it. It’s also worth noting how this double win for You Were Never Really Here implies that the jury really, really liked the film, because screenplay and performance are the only multiple award combo that the festival allows.

70th Anniversary Award: Nicole Kidman

Considering Kidman starred in no less than four projects included in the festival’s official selection, including two competition films, The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and two projects that screened out of competition, How To Talk To Girls At Parties and Top of the Lake: China Girl, the fact that the jury came up with a special, one-time-only award for her is perhaps not quite as surprising as a special surprise prize would generally be.

Other Winners:

Grand Prix: Robin Campillo, BPM (Beats per Minute)

Jury Prize: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Loveless

Best Actress: Diane Kruger, In the Fade

Camera d’Or (Best Debut Film): Leonor Serraille, Jeune Femme

Short Film Prize: A Gentle Night, Qiu Yang

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