The Cannes Film Festival ended with its longest competition title, and it wasn’t even a complete film. Nikita Mikhalkov Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2 should, in fact, be called Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2: Part 1, since what was screened was just one half of the final project. Exodus is essentially two and a half hours of Colonel Kotov (Mikhalkov) trudging through WWII battle zones to reunite with his daughter Nadya (Nadezhda Mikhalkova, the director’s real-life offspring) without making very much progress at all. (Yes, I know a title card at the end of Burnt by the Sun says that Kotov and his entire family were executed. The film deals with that by announcing that it was, basically, a filing error.)
When Nazis attack the prison camp in which Kotov is held, he escapes, eventually joining up with other Russian soldiers to trek across the country while avoiding being killed. Meanwhile, his daughter does, well, pretty much the exact same thing, except she flees from a Soviet school. Mikhalkov, being a larger-than-life nationalist psychopath, doesn’t half-ass anything. The entire movie is nonstop bombast, with huge battles, epic widescreen vistas, silent-film performances, and one of the most absolutely ridiculous scores I’ve ever heard in a movie. It can be very funny (largely because Mikhalkov clearly doesn’t mean any of it as comedy), but it’s mostly just exhausting, especially once the movie ends with Kotov and his daughter just as far apart as they were to begin with, and you realize that nothing you just watched mattered at all. I’m sure it will all be resolved in Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2: Part 2, but I can’t exactly say I’m counting down the days to find out.
And with that, it’s over. Or almost. The screenings are done, and the verdict is in: pretty much everyone agrees this was a pretty bad year. Most of the competition titles were dull, unambitious, or downright pointless; for perhaps the first time ever, Un Certain Regard—or at least what I saw of it—wiped the floor with most of the competition slate. But the competition did contain one genuinely great film, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and one probable masterpiece, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
All that’s left now is to screen the closing film and hand out the awards. I will not see the closing film—Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree, on which early word is pretty toxic—or the awards announcement, because I’ll be headed home in an airplane at the time. So here’s some brief predictions for what the jury might decide to do. Predicting the Cannes jury’s decisions is fun but notoriously useless; they’re a small group, and their decisions often don’t adhere to buzz or to what critics think. So a word of warning: These are all based on guesswork, and they are almost certainly all wrong.
My pick: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The jury’s pick, maybe: Of Gods and Men. In a just world, Weerasethakul would take this in a walk. But my gut is telling me that this jury is going to play it a little safer, and it didn’t get much safer this year than Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, which very controversially celebrates courage and noble sacrifice. It has garnered some of the most ecstatic reviews of the festival, but while respectable and handsomely crafted, it is also completely unchallenging and (to me) undramatic, the French version of a prestige awards-season contender. But awards-season contenders are so-called for one very good reason: They tend to win awards.
My pick: Certified Copy
The jury’s pick, maybe: Biutiful. The Grand Prix is essentially the second-place prize, so I would give it to Certified Copy, the only film I saw at Cannes other than Uncle Boonmee that I could celebrate with absolutely no reservations. It’s a casually profound, deeply moving look at the nature of art, love, and relationships, but most people didn’t really seem to go for it. A lot of people also didn’t go for Alejandro Gonález Iñárritu’s Biutiful (myself definitely included), but it also found a very passionate group of fans who apparently found something poetic or profound in its unrevealing parade of manufactured misery. My prediction for the Palme was actually torn between Of Gods and Men and this, and I could easily see it taking the top prize. I just really hope it doesn’t.
My pick: Another Year
The jury’s pick, maybe: Another Year. Third prize for me goes to Mike Leigh’s Another Year, which is a bit too single-minded for my tastes but argues its thesis with undeniable skill. It was one of the few films in the early days of the fest to earn anything like a positive consensus, so I think the jury will also want to reward it here. The only thing that may keep it from getting this award is that I also think it’s the frontrunner for Best Actress (see below), and Cannes juries tend to try to spread the love.
My pick: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The jury’s pick, maybe: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I refuse to allow myself to think the jury might do anything else. He’s just so obviously heads and shoulders above the rest of the field, the only one who made a film people could conceivably still be talking about 20 years from now.
My pick: Javier Bardem, Biutiful
The jury’s pick, maybe: Mark Womack, Route Irish. I mostly hated Biutiful, but the one thing I agree with its proponents on is the strength of Bardem’s dignified, soulful performance. And had I not already predicted Biutiful for the Grand Prix, I’d be listing him as the likely winner here as well. But since I did, I’m stuck searching for a likely alternative in a competition field rather light on strong lead male performances. I landed on Womack, whose finely modulated turn reveals subtly different levels of…oh, who am I kidding: The dude expresses every emotion (anger, confusion, hauntedness, you name it) by shouting. But it’s certainly an intense performance, and one that has already garnered an awful lot of inexplicable praise. It’s also his first film performance, and Cannes juries often like feting newcomers.
My pick: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
The jury’s pick, maybe: Lesley Manville, Another Year. The performances in Mike Leigh’s films are always a little heightened, but Manville takes it one step too far in Another Year, pushing her character’s desperation just a little too hard for my tastes. But she’s nevertheless quite moving, ultimately, and has been the frontrunner in this category since day four. The only reason I can see for not rewarding her here could be if Another Year wins elsewhere—one of the Palme, Prix, or Jury Prize, or possibly even for its screenplay or direction. In that case, I’d expect this to go to Poetry’s Yun Junghee. Better than either of those was Binoche, whose typically lived-in performance in Certified Copy (is there a better actress in the world at suggesting her characters’ entire histories and internal lives without seeming to do anything at all?) gives the movie a lot of its considerable emotional heft.
My pick: Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy
The jury’s pick, maybe:Lee Changdong, Poetry. Normally I, too, would be trying to spread the wealth around here, but the field was so weak I figured, why bother? Plus, Certified Copy is the clear winner here, managing to explore some very serious emotional and philosophical issues while remaining funny and easy-going. That’s no small feat. As for the jury’s pick, I honestly have no idea. I have a nasty sense that Certified Copy will be going home empty-handed, and I’ve already predicted two awards for Another Year, the other clear contender here. So I’m gonna go with Poetry, which I feel could win something, and has a busy-enough plot to draw attention to its script.
Even if the festival isn’t quite over, I am. Even if this year was a bit lackluster, it was an amazing experience. I don’t know if I’ll be back next year, so I also want to thank all of you who read, commented, and sent me encouragement via Twitter. This has been exhausting, and I hope I did an at least passable job. A writer is nothing without his readers.