Cannes Post-Mortem

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So the most prestigious film festival in the world is over, the prizes have been handed out, and all of the pundits are abuzz about how this ties into the Oscar season.  So to repeat a question that some readers have posited on this very site: is The Tree of Life the new Oscar frontrunner?

In my opinion, no.  Before everyone gets excited about the prospect of the legendary auteur finally getting an Academy Award, keep in mind that Palme d’Or winners rarely translate into Best Picture nominees, and almost never become winners.  In the seventy-two years that the Palme has officially existed, the only recipients to have made it to BP nods were The Lost Weekend, Marty, Friendly Persuasion, M*A*S*H, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Missing, The Mission, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Secrets & Lies, and The Pianist.  Several of those films would have made it even if they hadn’t won the highest honor at Cannes, and only two were actually awarded the Oscar.  Yes, the slate has expanded to ten, which increases its chances of making it there considerably.  But Best Director – which as we all know has become the more valued category ever since that stupid pandering decision two years ago (but that’s an editorial for another week) – is still doubtful.

Also, just remember the kind of film we’re dealing with here.  The Tree of Life, by all accounts, is a very slow-moving, meditative art film with a non-traditional narrative dealing with heady, esoteric themes.  When has the Academy ever gone for that?  It’s almost guaranteed that it will have a devoted following, but just as many detractors will inevitably accuse the film of being pretentious, overrated drivel just as what happened at the Cannes screening…enough detractors to keep it from being a major threat for the Best Picture prize.

Let’s be honest here, the Academy does not often for the kind of works that Cannes juries award (not that they’ve been exactly spotless in their choices, either…The Mission, anyone?).  They prefer that precious middle ground between mainstream and artsy.  Or, as Nick Davis would say, “they like the arthouse best when there’s no real art in it.”  Terrence Malick just isn’t ever going to provide that for them, and as a result I highly doubt he will ever receive a competitive honor from that club.  Just six years ago The New World had similar divisive reactions, and it only managed a single technical nomination.  Days of Heaven, despite being one of the best films of the 70s, only managed a few technical nods ending up with one controversial win.  His breakout film Badlands received nothing.  Yes, The Thin Red Line was a Best Picture and Best Director nominee, but that was a very special case.  Malick had not directed a feature in twenty years, and his return to cinema with an epic war movie was considered a huge event in Hollywood.  Regardless of actual reception, it was practically guaranteed to receive several Oscar nominations, which, it should be noted, did not translate to a single win in the wake of the more popular (and inferior, in my opinion) Saving Private Ryan.

Of course, none of this is a statement on the actual quality of Malick’s opus.  To be clear, The Tree of Life remains my most anticipated film of the year.  I have yet to be disappointed in anything he’s made so far, and it still looks to me like an ambitious and visually astonishing experience.  I don’t know yet if it deserved to win the top prize or if the jury simply wanted to honor a respected film veteran (anyone who tells you Cannes doesn’t fall into the same traps that the Academy does is a filthy liar), and I won’t know until I see it this weekend.

But as one of the prognosticators for The Awards Circuit, I stand by my original predictions for the film.  Enough gas to edge into “The Ten,” but not the coveted Best Director circle.  Best Original Screenplay is very possible, though that’s only because that category is so barren this year.  Technical nods including Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects are still in the game.  Best Original Score may be in the cards if the music branch does not disqualify it.  But as a major threat to win the top prize, I remain unconvinced.

The only other victor that’s getting serious internet chatter for a possible Oscar nomination is Kirsten Dunst, the third Cannes Best Actress winner for a Lars von Trier film (that’s got to be some kind of record).  Her award was a nice – if likely unintended – slap in the face to the Board of Directors’ hypocritical decision to make von Trier “persona non grata” at the festival for his Nazi gaffe.  I’d love to see this underrated actress receive some Academy recognition, but contrary to assertions, Dunst’s place at the table is not guaranteed just yet.  The film itself has to register among voters to really gain the critical mass necessary for her to be a true threat (nineteen of the last thirty Best Actress Oscar winners won for performances in Best Picture nominees), and von Trier isn’t exactly one to unite audiences.  The other two women he directed to victory at Cannes?  Charlotte Gainsbourg and Björk…and they didn’t make it.  Still, I’ll be rooting for her.

As for the other competitors, it’s hard to say exactly where they “go” after the festival, though if you take Oscar out of the equation there’s a multitude of juicy prospects.  Personally, my anticipation for Drive has skyrocketed in the wake of its rapturous reception and Best Director award for Nicolas Winding Refn.  Will it be a major Oscar player?  Probably not, but if it ends up being the savior of muscular genre pulp, who cares?  Though it did not win any of the major awards, I was glad to hear that Lynne Ramsay has still “got it” nine years after Morvern Callar and I’m still very much looking forward to We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Despite a somewhat mixed reception, the idea of Pedro Almodóvar channeling David Cronenberg in The Skin I Live In intrigues me to no end.  I’m also anticipating The Artist, Sleeping Beauty, and Un Certain Regard entry Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Overall, this was a huge step up from last year’s fest as far as the number of interesting releases to look forward to.  Which film from Cannes are you most excited about?  Sound off in the comments!