CANNES, France -- The French had a very good night at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. The Palme d'Or went to director Jacques Audiard's hard-charging drama "Dheepan," about a trio of Sri Lankan refugees posing as a family and making precarious new lives for themselves in the Paris projects.
Joel and Ethan Coen, who created "No Country For Old Men" and the 1991 Palme winner "Barton Fink," presided over the main competition jury. While the "Dheepan" win surprised many here in Cannes -- the film devolves into revenge killings capped by a happy ending -- clearly Audiard's brand of straightforward, well-tooled craftsmanship appealed to the Coens and their fellow jurors. Sundance Selects is handling U.S. theatrical and video on demand release of "Dheepan" later this year.
Consenus on "Dheepan" was "swift," Ethan Coen said after the closing ceremony. "Everybody had a high level of excitement and enthusiasm for it." Brother Joel responded to one Taiwanese journalist unhappy that the critically favored Hou Hsiao-Hsien martial arts picture "The Assassin" didn't win the Palme by saying he thought it was "a great movie, beautifully directed movie." Therefore, he said, the directing prize seemed right.
Besides, he said: "This isn't a jury of film critics; this is a jury of artists, looking at the work."
"Son of Saul," a remarkable, unnerving debut feature from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, won the Grand Prix (second prize). The eccentric dystopian comedy "The Lobster" from Greek-born director Yorgos Lanthimos, featuring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, won the jury prize (third).
The widely acclaimed lesbian love story "Carol" won an actress prize, but for a different actress than everyone anticipated. Rooney Mara, not her co-star, Cate Blanchett, got the nod. And it was a tie: The other winner was Emmanuelle Bercot for the French drama "Mon Roi." It was a big evening for the home team here in Cannes. Vincent Lindon won the best actor prize for "The Measure of a Man."
Hou's "The Assassin" was cited for best direction. Michel Franco's small, careful "Chronic," in which Tim Roth plays a home healthcare worker with a secret, won for best screenplay. The Camera d'Or for best first film, across all competitive slates, went to the Columbian feature "La Tierra y la Sombra."
Cinematic achievement aside, the award for the festival's biggest scandal was a lot easier to call than the win for "Dheepan." By a landslide, the winner is that peculiar tale of protocol, denial and ambivalent apology known variously as "flatgate," "shoegate" and "heelgate."
At the May 17 red carpet premiere of "Carol," several women holding the proper tickets were shut out of the Grand Theatre Lumiere for wearing rhinestone flats, not the traditional, formal, stilt-like heels. The incident occurred amid a festival at which many influential industry players, from Salma Hayek to "Carol" producer Christine Vachon, were speaking out against sexism, gender inequality and a lack of opportunity for women.
Actress Emily Blunt called the flats incident "very disappointing." Shortly after a press conference for her film "Sicario" she upgraded that description to "appalling." You could sense, in the press conference, her conflicted feelings about the fuss. It was worth commenting on, but Blunt implied -- as did so many others over the last few days, as the shoegate outrage kept building -- that women in film put up with so much adversity, the shoes are the least of the problems.
At the same "Sicario" press conference Blunt and "Sicario" director Denis Villeneuve pointed out that en route to the green light, after languishing for years in development, Blunt's role of an FBI agent was nearly rewritten as a male for the usual tired reason: to make the project more "bankable."
Three days after shoegate, festival director Thierry Fremaux apologized in a backhanded way, after a frantic news cycle full of contradictory information. (First a festival spokesman erroneously claimed high heels were obligatory. Then Fremaux said they weren't, and never have been, at least on paper.)
"There was perhaps a small moment of over-zealousness" on behalf of the security guards, he acknowledged.
At that same "Carol" premiere May 19, producer Vachon wore combat boots and strolled right in. Vachon tweeted a photo of her "red carpet footwear" hours before the "Carol" world premiere. This, in retrospect, was the quintessential photo of this year's Cannes, an emblem of rebellion the festival needed, as well as a reminder that the answer to gender inequity problems is simply more boots on the ground, figurative or literal, worn by those customarily shut out of their share of the stories being told.
The strongest work at Cannes this year came from all over the place, in the main competition slate as well as the more adventurous sidebars, Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week.
I saw two remarkable first features. In addition to "Son of Saul," the festival showcased a terrific semi-autobiographical drama shot in Houston for under $100,000. Titled "Krisha," the film won the Grand Jury Prize earlier this year at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
"Krisha" comes from Trey Edward Shults, whose premise is simplicity itself. Visiting her sister for Thanksgiving, an uneasily recovering alcoholic played by Krisha Fairchild, the filmmaker's aunt, reunites with the grown son (played by the filmmaker) she more or less abandoned. It sounds like second-shelf Sundance material, but "Krisha" has serious nerve and dazzling technique, putting the audience behind the eyes of its titular bundle of nerves. The results are bracing and beautifully scored (by composer Brian McOmber), and Shults is off and running.
In the main competition, some fine directors delivered some mild-to-moderate disappointments, notably Paulo Sorrentino with "Youth" (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel fighting off old age and artistic ennui at a Swiss spa) and, the Palme notwithstanding, Audiard with "Dheepan." This year's big winner starts off well, with an absorbing chronicle of three Sri Lankan refugees posing as a family as they make their way to the Paris suburbs.
There they must cope with a dangerous housing project carved up by warring gangs. Much of the film is tense, forceful and immediate. Then Audiard takes the easy way out, albeit a commercially promising one; the story contrives to put its decent but volatile title character, played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, into action hero mode, capped by an eye-roller of a coda.
Still, the best of "Dheepan" transcends its own storyline. Audiard, whose peak achievement remains the prison drama "A Prophet," takes you someplace. This is the enduring fact about the world's grandest film festival: You travel to the Cote d'Azur only to be transported to worlds and visions beyond.
"The Assassin" offered a supremely elegant martial arts tale, set in 9th century China, about a stealthy killer (Shu Qi) returning to her homeland. This is Hou's first film in eight years; his brilliant, blithe Parisian character study "The Flight of the Red Balloon" screened here at Cannes in 2007.
The violence in "The Assassin" does not behave like the violence in virtually any other wuxia martial arts picture. Hou cuts away, or into, a clash of sword-wielding warriors at unpredictable and eccentrically timed junctures. He does not deliver the usual; he's incapable of "the usual," as a filmmaker with an unparalleled eye for compositional rigor and mouth-watering landscapes.
Another master, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, works in an entirely different key -- many different keys, in fact -- in "Mountains May Depart," an audacious, squirrelly love triangle completely shut out by the jury.
Of the French films in competition, the best was unfairly squeezed out of the main competition slate and ended up in Directors' Fortnight. Arnaud Desplechin's "My Golden Days" serves as a lovely, rollicking prequel to the filmmaker's "My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument." The story brings the recent, late-20th century past to life, following the fortunes of Paul (lovely, unaffected work from young newcomer Quentin Dolmaire) and his vexing long-term love for Esther (Lou-Roy Lecollinet).
It's a film about young-adult romance and heartbreak that embraces the highs, lows and the in-betweens, at an age when love is a melodrama being written on the fly.
Closing weekend, in the Cannes Classics sidebar, one of the last things I saw was Kent Jones' documentary "Hitchcock/Truffaut," an irresistible love letter to one of the most justifiably dog-eared film books in history. Tight and packed with judiciously chosen clips, it's an account of how Francois Truffaut came to interview his cinematic idol over the course of a week in 1962, in between the release of "Psycho" and "The Birds."
If nothing else the documentary should stoke appreciation for some of Hitchcock's less universally revered titles, "The Wrong Man" chief among them. Interviews with David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and others keep the Hitchcock love coming. And then the documentary ends with a lovely freeze frame of the key hidden in Ingrid Bergman's hand in "Notorious." Pure cinema.
It was swell to see "Hitchcock/Truffaut" in a particular corner of the world that will never apologize for the love of pure cinema.