“Anatomy of a Fall” Wins the Palme d’Or, Wrapping Up a Solid Cannes
"Zone of Interest" took home the Grand Prix
This is the fifth and final installment of the 2023 edition of the French Dispatches, our on-the-ground coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.
The Queer Palm, a prize for the best LGBTQ+ film across the various sections of Cannes, was awarded at a party on the beach on Friday night, after the last Competition title had screened and as thoughts turned to home, but at 2 a.m,, when the DJ set ended and the lights went up, my friends and I were not quite ready to leave — we wanted to hear the song of the festival, “P.I.M.P.” by 50 Cent, and began to sing the melody, “Ba-da ba ba-da ba-da BA, Ba-da ba ba-da ba-da BA,” until the security guards seemed well and truly exasperated. (Sorry.) Cannes lasts the better part of two weeks in a bubble intense even by film festival standards, long enough for lore to develop and inside jokes to metastasize — the next time you see a Cannes title and come away perplexed by the hype, remember that your expectations were set by a sleep-deprived pop-up society for whom such films are the entire culture — and there are always a few crucial needle-drops from films that become the soundtrack to our fortnight at movie camp. This year, it was “P.I.M.P.”, a steel-drum cover of which, by Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, is utilized quite crucially in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall.
I can’t be certain, but I believe that this singalong (which has been previously reported) was key to Anatomy of a Fall capturing the Palme d’Or the following day. Anatomy of a Fall was perhaps the biggest hit of the festival — advance buzz was so strong, and continuous, that I had to take the 25-minute bus ride out to the Cineum multiplex to catch up with it a day after the premiere, and no one was surprised when Triet and star Sandra Hüller showed up on the red carpet prior to the closing ceremony. Hüller, in one of the performances of the festival, plays Sandra, a successful author suspected of killing her husband, who either fell or jumped or was pushed from a high window. In the absence of any particularly compelling forensic evidence, Sandra’s guilt or innocence must be adjudged primarily based on vibes, and the trial hinges on her difficult personality — unsympathetic in her lack of sentimentality, ambitious in her use of her life as the raw material of her art — and her and her husband’s unconventional marriage, the imbalances of power in their creative careers and domestic arrangements, the faultlines in their romance, which are duly narrated and renarrated, framed and reframed, in the harsh light of the courtroom. Triet, last seen in Cannes with the dramedy Sybil, about a movie star’s therapist who loses the run of herself when called on to make an emergency set visit, again explores the ambiguities of fiction-making and the negotiations of relationships.
The film’s title is a surely deliberate echo of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a film about the courtroom as theater, but the French adversarial system — which apparently gives plenty of leeway for speechifying, digressions, fuming rhetoric and whiplash confrontations between attorneys, judges, witnesses and defendant — makes for a dizzying, dialectical spectacle in which several different readings of Sandra’s personality are offered up to be judged by the jury and, implicitly, us in the audience. (Intriguingly, especially given that Anatomy of a Fall concerns spouses writing books on similar subjects, Triet wrote the film with her partner Arthur Harari, a filmmaker and also an actor seen onscreen this Cannes in The Goldman Case, a film about the real-life murder trial of a 1970s radical; that film takes place almost entirely inside the courtroom, and its arguments are even more performative and philosophically pointed.) Hüller is as good here as in Zone of Interest in a very contrasting role that puts her in direct contact with her audience, both onscreen and off. She’s very believable as a proud, public person accustomed to personal and professional agency, losing control of the narrative of her life.
The film is catchy beyond the irresistible steel-drum hook — the day before winning the Palme d’Or, the film also deservedly nabbed the Palm Dog for the wildly talented border collie who plays a vital role in the drama — but is hamstrung by an ending that, unless you squint, resolves too much of the central, engrossing mystery; it may be too neat and conclusive to foster the kind of post-screening arguments and explainer pieces that gave, for instance, Tár such staying power. Nevertheless, over two and a half hours of novelistic detail and subtly bravura formalism, the film confirms Justine Triet as a big-canvas upper-middlebrow auteur making lapidary and entertaining movies about art and life and professional ethics.
The film will be released in the U.S. by Neon, the indie distributor that also put out the last three Palme winners, Parasite, Titane and Triangle of Sadness. The four-peat was cause for some brand-building boasting on Twitter, though surely Neon’s run is at least partly due to a lack of competition — there aren’t really a lot of other American companies acquiring movies like this, at least not at this moment in the history of the film industry; word was that a lot of financiers left earlier this year, after the first weekend rather than midway through the second week, since they knew they’d be spending less on new projects than in previous years, when low interest rates facilitated the flow of a lot of money into this ecosystem.
Grand Prix, essentially second prize, went to Zone of Interest; this is pure speculation on my part but, given the film’s conspicuous stylistic genius and its either shallowly or devastatingly bold treatment of real historical atrocity, as well as jury president Ruben Östlund’s allusions to shall-we-say spirited deliberations, this prize has the definite air of compromise about it. (Both Anatomy of a Fall and Zone of Interest seem, in their detached direction and self-conscious impressiveness, like the kind of movie that Ruben Östlund would recognize as good.) Best Director went to The Pot-Au-Feu’s Tran Anh Hung, another likely compromise for a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser film that a lot of people already consider an instant classic and a lot of people consider bafflingly lightweight; at any rate Anh Hung can certainly shine sideways golden-hour light into a kitchen where famous French actors speak hushed and loving words about the profundities of food. (It’s also pretty funny, I think[?] intentionally, when these gastromes talk about their heroic struggle to eat dozens of courses over the course of an eight-hour banquet.)
The Jury Prize went to Fallen Leaves, by Aki Kaurismäki; I had thought before I’d seen it that the Finnish master’s return to the template of his 1980s “proletariat trilogy” would resonate and was pleased to see it make a hit with the critics, who put it atop Screen’s international jury grid (it also came second in Palm Dog). Kaurismäki makes comedies that are often called “deadpan” due to their the sketched-out scenes, minimal dialogue and laconic performances; this affect is absurd in its abruptness, but also moving as an evocation of the exhaustion of working life. He’s also one of the great depicters of people who are the kind of people who, as John Prine sang, go to work in the morning, then come home in the evening and have nothing to say.
In Fallen Leaves, a lonely grocery-store worker and alcoholic construction worker strike up a tentative flirtation after meeting at karaoke night at a local dive; various circumstances, variously cosmic, economic and personal, conspire to keep them apart for much of the film. Their near-wordless connection speaks to profound mutual empathy and solidarity. Kaurismäki’s characters work demanding, demeaning jobs, return to sparsely decorated flats, eat stodgy dinners and then go out to the local bar, to listen to music, whether punk and rockabilly or old Finnish patriotic songs; there’s a wonderful scene in Fallen Leaves when a multigenerational audience of hipsters, barflies and retirees sit in silence, sipping beer and watching a gig by synth-pop duo Maustetytöt, and Kaurismäki’s dedication, unchanged since the 1980s, to both communal spaces and enduring rituals is deeply affecting and politically righteous.
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Koji Yakusho, one of the great Japanese actors of his or any generation, who first made a splash at Cannes in the 1990s in Palme winner The Eel, finally captured Best Actor here for his role in Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days, which is maybe a less Leftist, more po-faced version of Fallen Leaves in its depiction of hard work and repetitive routines untouched by modernity. The city of Tokyo has many beautiful public toilets, which are kept impeccably clean; in Perfect Days, they are kept clean by janitors including Yakusho’s character. Wenders’s depiction of the man’s routine — wake before dawn and water his plants, drive to work sipping his coffee and listening to his old cassettes, perform his labor in stoic silence, visit his local pool, have one drink and dinner and the local market stall, then home to bed to read, say, Faulkner until he falls asleep — is repeated throughout the movie so that you become accustomed to its rhythms and sensitive to its variations.
All this edges right up to condescension, to either or both of the virtuous working class and the wise and ascetic Orient; public conveniences are important and I am grateful to the people who maintain public facilities, but I also think it’s okay if those people aren’t simple hipster monks who listen to the same music that Wim Wenders does (whose lyrics, including those of the title song, are often hilariously on the nose). The late addition of backstory further sentimentalizes a film that was already playing like a more precious Paterson.
Best Actress was the real surprise of the ceremony — these days the jury never gives any film more than one prize, so Hüller was out and the field was open, but among a number of contenders no one I talked to mentioned Merve Dizdar, from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses. Ceylan’s last several films have been three-hour affairs about mediocre masculine intellects who have traveled out far enough into the Turkish countryside to bully everyone around them with their urbane, specious talk; he shoots domestic interiors in expansive, almost Western widescreen, baths them in burnished light, and fills their air with heady and interminable cod-philosophical talk about ideals and values, so that his films become anti-epics inflated by the hot air of his protagonists’ pretentions. To single out a female performer as the highlight of one of Ceylan’s films goes against the grain of their drama but is very much in the spirit of their self-critical intentions; Dizdar is very fine, with a clear intellect and too much humility for her own good, as the local woman cautiously drawn to the film’s ostensible protagonist, an egotistical rural schoolteacher.
I forgot to mention who won the Queer Palm at the party I went to — it was Hirokazu Kore-eda, for Monster, a film about a troubled Japanese schoolboy, his worried single mother, the teacher she believes is bullying him, and the misfit he befriends. Who is the titular monster? Well, the title is ironic; the film uses a backtracking structure, repeating its timeline from multiple points of view, to examine how we misunderstand each other. It’s a bit of a simple trick, especially given how prolific Kore-eda has been of late, and if Monster even qualifies as a queer film it’s only because of a very late-breaking, glancing plot development which is more necessary narratively than thematically; but maybe I’m wrong about that, since Queer Palm jury president John Cameron Mitchell gave an insightful speech about how “queer kids understand metaphor first,” since their whole existence is subtext, which is very apt for a film about characters who all feel like outsiders generally. (Mitchell’s speech was also very funny, including some complaints about the red-carpet fashion police nixing his suit-dress.) Monster also won Best Screenplay, for Yuji Sakamoto, who mostly apes the rather more elegant sympathy-recalibrating moves Kore-eda has gotten down to a science in his last few films.
I wonder why Cannes gives a screenplay award and not a cinematography award; I suppose it must be a vestige of the biases of post-WWII arthouse cinema, when film aspired to the status of great literature, and authors like Georges Simenon and William Styron regularly headed the jury. These days it’s hard to argue that the DPs aren’t more influential — in particular, this Cannes, Hélène Louvart, who gave Karim Aïnouz’s disappointing revisionist Tudor drama Firebrand an immersive, lusty texture that did rather more than the script to make the life of Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander) seem physical, urgent, of-the-moment; and whose fleet, grainy, sun-dappled, dirt-flecked work on various celluloid stocks brought Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera to life. A neorealist fairy tale about tombaroli, tomb-raiders looting old Etruscan gravesites for black-market antiquities in 1980s Umbria, La Chimera for me was the best film of the festival, with very sharp insights about cultural heritage and economic imperatives, and timeless lessons, both wise and playful, about into our attitudes around life and death. (Neon has this one, too.)
So that’s a wrap on Cannes 2023, which I think will be remembered for a pretty good Competition and some pretty death-haunted Hollywood royalty: Harrison Ford tearing up as his his life flashes before his eyes; Martin Scorsese lamenting the passage of time even as his new film engages furiously with the past, present and future of American justice and art. Economic caution and ongoing Hollywood strikes will make themselves felt in 2024, I’m sure. I hope I’m there for it, regardless; and I hope next time, the DJ closes with “P.I.M.P.”
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