Before the first competition title had even unspooled at this year's Cannes Film Festival, more than one oddsmaker suggested that there was already a serious frontrunner for the Palme d'Or, and it was clearly Naomi Kawase. A Cannes competition regular whose strenuously meditative, nature-obsessed art films have already earned her the Camera d'Or and the Grand Prix, the Japanese director would finally bring home the big one, the logic went, not because "Still the Water" was such a masterpiece (although Kawase, with almost admirable immodesty, had no problem characterizing it as such), but rather because she happens to be a woman. And with Jane Campion presiding over this year's festival jury, surely we would not be denied the spectacle of the first female director to win the Palme d'Or personally anointing the second -- and far more likely that it would be Kawase than the younger, greener Alice Rohrwacher ("The Wonders"), the only other woman filmmaker in competition.
Leaving aside the fact that Campion herself used the occasion of the festival's opening-day press conference to spotlight the chronic underrepresentation of women in the film industry, the notion that Kawase would win on gender alone strikes me as a cynical, sexist and implausible one -- which is not to suggest that it's completely outside the realm of possibility. (Since then, of course, "Still the Water" has actually screened, and there are precious few arguing that it could win the Palme on merit.) But I suspect that Campion and her jurors not only are above that kind of tokenism, but also that they've bothered to pay attention to the 17 other films that have unspooled over the past 10 days, and while the general consensus has been that it's a less impressive, more erratic selection overall than last year's batch, there have been more than enough gems to furnish a respectable slate of honorees.
Predicting the Palmares is, of course, a fool's errand, given that you're attempting to guess at not just the individual preferences of a small pool of jurors, but also the compromises they'd be most likely to agree upon in the interests of consensus. With the very cine-savvy and independent-minded Campion holding the most sway as jury president, my own suspicion is that we're likely looking at a bolder, less populist choice for the Palme than usual, which means the two American titles in competition, Bennett Miller's critically lauded "Foxcatcher" and Tommy Lee Jones' less enthusiastically received "The Homesman," are probably out of the running. Campion is also a director who brings to the festival a strong knowledge of Cannes history (not something that can be said of every jury president), and will thus have a keen sense of which filmmakers have been over-rewarded in the past and which ones are overdue.
With those possibly specious assumptions in mind, here are my not-at-all-certain predictions for what will win on Saturday. In keeping with recent jury practice, I have adopted a spread-the-wealth approach, taking into account the festival rule that no film can receive more than one of the top five prizes (Palme d'Or, Grand Prix, director, actor and actress), although it is possible for a film to win an acting award and also receive either the jury prize (basically second runner-up) or the screenplay prize.
PALME D'ORPrediction: "Leviathan." Andrey Zvyagintsev's very fine 2011 film, "Elena," was passed over for a competition slot in favor of an Un Certain Regard berth -- a slight that has now been remedied with the director's superb follow-up, "Leviathan." A bleak, beautifully acted and bitterly funny drama about the civic, domestic and spiritual chaos that ensnares a family locked in a legal dispute with their corrupt mayor, Zvyagintsev's fourth feature screened to rapturous responses on the second-to-last evening of the competition and immediately confirmed the quiet early buzz that it was a major Palme contender. I'm operating on little more than a strong hunch at this point, albeit one that a number of colleagues have roundly echoed: In addition to cementing this Russian master's place in the international-cinema firmament, "Leviathan" would be a choice of no small topical relevance, given how convincingly it articulates something that's been on all our minds lately: Man, Russia's messed up.
Also in contention: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" (which just won the Fipresci prize) looms as perhaps "Leviathan's" heaviest competition here. The Turkish auteur has won just about every Cannes prize except the big one, and his latest has the weighty feel of a magnum opus; its reams of dialogue and 196-minute running time have proven understandably taxing for some, difficult in a way that some directors on the jury (Campion, Jia Zhangke and Sofia Coppola perhaps among them) might well embrace. Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" and the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" have both been warmly received, though given that these helmers have all won this prize in the past (twice in the Dardennes' case), my gut tells me the Palme will go elsewhere. Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" and Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" have their admirers as well. Finally, one rather astonishing fact remains: Jean-Luc Godard, in competition with his vibrant and playful 3D experiment "Goodbye to Language," has never before won a prize at Cannes, and this may well be his last chance to do so -- a fact that seems unlikely to go ignored during Campion's jury deliberations.
GRAND PRIXPrediction: "Mr. Turner." Of all the films that screened early in the fest, Leigh's richly textured, beautifully acted J.M.W. Turner biopic has had perhaps the most critical staying power. A second Palme may not be forthcoming, but Leigh is long overdue for a prize; his previous two competition entries, 2010′s "Another Year" and 2002′s "All or Nothing," both went home empty-handed, and the festival's rejection of "Vera Drake" (which went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice) remains one of the more infamous slights of recent Cannes history. Something tells me, too, that "Mr. Turner" may have special resonance for Campion, who was last in competition with her own intensely intimate, emotionally delicate portrait of a British artist, 2009′s "Bright Star."
Also in contention: Look for "Leviathan" to triumph here if it doesn't end up taking the Palme, although "Mommy," "Timbuktu," "Goodbye to Language" and even "Foxcatcher" are conceivable threats. Ceylan and the Dardennes actually shared the Grand Prix the last time they were in competition (2011), which makes it a bit less likely that either "Winter Sleep" or "Two Days, One Night" will emerge victorious here.
JURY PRIZEPrediction: "Timbuktu." Sissako's deeply stirring panorama of northern Mali in the wake of a jihadist influx got the competition off to an excellent start, banishing the opening-night stench of "Grace of Monaco" while firmly vaulting the Mauritanian-born director into the big leagues. With its sobering yet tactful dramatization of unspeakable horrors and its undeniable yet never self-admiring gravitas, the film seems unlikely to go home empty-handed.
Also in contention: Any of the aforementioned Palme and Grand Prix contenders could turn up here, and indeed the jury could even opt to declare a tie in this category, as has happened on previous occasions.
DIRECTORPrediction: Xavier Dolan, "Mommy." Of the three Canadian directors in competition, Dolan was the only one to really galvanize the international press, following the disastrous reception for Atom Egoyan's "The Captive" and the lukewarm response to David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars." Although not unanimously loved, "Mommy" had more than a few declaring it to be Dolan's best work, not least for its visual invention (including the use of a 1:1 aspect ratio) and stylistic energy. At 25, he's exactly the sort of talented upstart that this prize has typically gone to in recent years (others include Amat Escalante, Carlos Reygadas, Mathieu Amalric and Nicolas Winding Refn, who happens to be on this year's jury).
Also in contention: While I expect "Foxcatcher" to win an acting prize, Bennett Miller is a well-regarded, Oscar-nominated helmer making (surprisingly) his first appearance at one of the major European festivals, and his superbly tense direction here is a major accomplishment. That said, it's a major accomplishment that seems destined for bigger awards attention down the line, and the jury may well favor a less mainstream talent like Sissako, or even Damian Szifron for his entertaining revenge omnibus "Wild Tales." And should Campion & Co. plan to single out either Alice Rohrwacher or Naomi Kawase, this seems like the logical category in which to do it: Rohrwacher's "The Wonders" drew largely favorable reactions for its lyrical depiction of rural family life, while a victory for "Still the Water" would hardly mark the first time Kawase's meandering lyricism was deemed award-worthy.
ACTORPrediction: Steve Carell, "Foxcatcher." Were this my choice, I'd give a joint acting award to Carell and his equally fine co-stars Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, all of whose performances form such a tightly woven psychological mesh that they almost can't be evaluated in isolation. Still, as majorly creepy millionaire-turned-murderer John du Pont, Carell gives by far the film's showiest, most startling and transformative turn (complete with prosthetic proboscis), which gives him a clear edge.
Also in contention: Timothy Spall was born to play the title role in "Mr. Turner," and his warm, gruff, physically imposing, eloquently grunting presence could well be the first Leigh-directed performance to win a Cannes prize since Brenda Blethyn triumphed for 1996′s "Secrets & Lies." Also in the running is the Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer, who not only valiantly tackled pages and pages of dialogue in "Winter Sleep" but pulled off the tricky task of imbuing a capital-D douchebag with dry wit and real humanity.
ACTRESSPrediction: Marion Cotillard, "Two Days, One Night." She may have an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, but one of France's biggest movie stars has never won best actress at Cannes, and not for lack of opportunity: This is the third consecutive year that Cotillard has been in the main program with a highly acclaimed performance, after 2012′s "Rust and Bone" and last year's "The Immigrant." The Dardenne brothers have won a prize at Cannes every time out, a streak from which Cotillard stands to benefit: She may not disappear entirely into their ensemble of working-class proles, but her portrayal of depression, anxiety and gradual recovery is no less piercing for it.
Also in contention: An embarrassment of riches in this category, and it only got richer in the festival's final days: If they're feeling generous, the jurors could well opt to honor a tag team of actresses, so as to avoid having to choose between Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement in "Mommy," or between Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart (doing her best work in some time) in Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria." Not to be counted out are Hilary Swank in "The Homesman," Elena Lyadova in "Leviathan" or Melisa Sozen in "Winter Sleep," but my own personal choice would be the great Julianne Moore, generally agreed to be the standout element of "Maps to the Stars": Whether sitting on the john or dancing figuratively on a little boy's grave, Moore's raging, tragicomic embodiment of a toxic Hollywood harpy was pretty unforgettable.
SCREENPLAYWill win: "Winter Sleep." Much as I'd like to see Ceylan win something bigger, this may be the ideal consolation prize if it doesn't earn a strong enough jury consensus to prevail elsewhere. As even its detractors will agree, it certainly has the most screenplay, and anything that gets described as "Chekhovian" probably stands a pretty good chance in this category.
Also in contention: Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin's "Leviathan" script is not only well constructed from a dramatic standpoint, but also rich in dark, nasty humor, as evidenced by the laughter and applause that have greeted its barbed asides about Russia's political leadership. Szifron's six stories of revenge in "Wild Tales" could also earn recognition here, as could Bruce Wagner's original script for "Maps to the Stars," even if it struck many as too dated and obvious in its choice of satirical targets.
Related storiesCannes Film Review: 'Pride'Cannes Film Review: 'Of Men and War'CANNES: How Xavier Dolan's 'Mommy' Became the Buzziest Movie at the Festival 2014 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLCCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun