The Dutch-born, Hollywood-friendly director Paul Verhoeven has a gift for bringing out the very best in his leading ladies, usually by forcing them to embrace the very worst. From Sharon Stone’s ice-pick-wielding femme fatale in “Basic Instinct” (1992), to Carice van Houten’s Nazi-seducing Jewish resistance fighter in “Black Book” (2006), Verhoeven has always had fun playing with his heroines’ desires and desirability, allowing them to wield their sexuality with the kind of brazen self-assurance rarely accorded women on American screens. But he also likes putting them through the wringer, as evidenced by the hideously memorable image of van Houten covered in human excrement — at once an act of degradation and the foulest sort of baptism.
Not unlike Brian De Palma, another filmmaker who likes to skirt the boundaries of good taste, Verhoeven has inspired no shortage of gender-based arguments over the years: Whether his female characters are misogynist constructs or avatars of empowerment is a topic open to continual debate and reappraisal. That seems unlikely to change with his latest work, “Elle,” a breathtakingly elegant and continually surprising French-language thriller that brought the 69th Cannes Film Festival competition to a rousing close on Saturday.
If the early reactions seem tilted in Verhoeven’s favor, it’s surely because this indecently entertaining provocation — his first film since “Black Book,” and his first to compete for the Palme d’Or since “Basic Instinct” — seems to belong equally to the French actress Isabelle Huppert, who rises to the occasion with one of the greatest performances of her very great career. In Huppert, Verhoeven has more than met his match; he has found a stunning collaborator, an actress who brings flurries of wit and tremors of complication to the sort of material that, in less assured hands, might well have tilted into outright disaster.
It’s not always noted, but there are two Cannes film festivals, one composed of critics, journalists and industry professionals, and the other inhabited by the sequestered jury. Sometimes these two Cannes speak with one voice, but in this 69th festival, they definitely did not.
The German film “Toni Erdmann,” directed by Maren Ade, one of the few women in the competition, was easily the non-jury favorite among the 21 films eligible for prizes.
Both wildly raucous and movingly humane, it chronicles the evolving relationship between a prankster father and his high-powered careerist daughter. Far from winning a top prize, however, “Toni Erdmann” was totally shut out by the jury chaired by “Mad Max” director George Miller.
During a news conference after last year’s Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony, Joel Coen, co-president of the jury, responded to a question about why the Palme d’Or had gone to Jacques Audiard’s tepidly received “Dheepan,” rather than one of the more acclaimed films in competition. Coen’s response was characteristically blunt: “This isn’t a jury of film critics.”
Indeed. And setting aside my own obvious bias in the matter, I can say that this arrangement is — in theory, and sometimes in practice — a good thing. We critics are often accused, sometimes rightly, of approaching our chosen art form with harsh scowls and highfalutin criteria at the ready, our judgments reflecting a profound detachment from the experience of the general audience, as well as of the artists who work hard to entertain them. At the same time, I would counter that Cannes, the greatest film festival in the world, has a mandate to honor the best in world cinema, which at times means pushing back against popular expectations.
There’s also the fact that anyone who serves on a festival jury is, by definition, exercising critical judgment and making an assertion of personal taste. Some of the most satisfying Palme d’Or winners in recent memory — “Amour,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The Tree of Life,” and even a “difficult” work like “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — have demonstrated that it’s possible for non-card-carrying critics to make smart, aesthetically adventurous decisions. They've also demonstrated that honoring the art form and satisfying an audience are not mutually exclusive goals.
The movie's opening may as well arrive with an on-screen statement.
Loud shrieking lends the impression a couple is having sex, but the first sight is a close-up of a cat. Then the camera cuts to the source of the shrieks, and it turns out what sounded like love was actually an assault.
Predicting the major prizewinners at the Cannes Film Festival — awards that are handed out by a nine-person jury that changes annually, and whose individual reactions have been a complete mystery all festival long — is a fool’s errand. But I’ve never been one to let that (or my dismal track record) stop me. Here are my thoroughly whimsical, highly unscientific predictions for what will win the Palme d’Or and other prizes from George Miller’s jury on Sunday evening. I am adhering to the festival’s rules, which state that no film can win more than one prize (with the exception of the acting and screenplay awards, which can be paired for the same film).
Palme d’Or: “Toni Erdmann.” Maren Ade’s achingly funny, utterly surprising relationship comedy has been the dominant critical favorite of the competition, and the dominant critical favorite often wins. (Last year’s middlingly received “Dheepan” proved an exception to the rule, but other recent winners — “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “Amour” come to mind — have borne it out.) It helps, too, that “Toni Erdmann” is a genuine crowdpleaser, packed with the sort of showstopping moments that make its lengthy 162-minute running time feel not just bearable but wholly earned. A win for Ade would not only be richly deserved, but also make her the first female director to win the most prestigious award in international cinema for the first time since Jane Campion’s “The Piano” tied with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.” It would also be a nice feather in the cap of Germany, which hasn’t been well represented at Cannes of late: The last German-directed films to win the Palme were Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (1984) and Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” (1979).
Some potential spoilers: “Julieta” has not been rousingly received, but Pedro Almodóvar is considered long overdue for a Palme, and affection for this beloved auteur runs deep. (Expect the film to win the Palme or nothing.) The two Romanian heavyweights, Cristi Puiu’s “Sieranevada” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” were both well received and have passionate admirers. And Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” the only other female-directed film in competition besides “Toni Erdmann” to have generated significant acclaim, might well emerge as a major challenger.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of those directors who pushes buttons as much with his pronouncements as his work. In an interview with The Times at Cannes a few years ago for the polarizing Thai western "Only God Forgives," he fashioned an elaborate metaphor out of the image of a birth canal — then proceeded to compare it to sex.
The Dane's appearance at the festival this year has been no less needling. Refn's "Neon Demon" played its first screening Thursday, and the movie's hyper-stylized mashup of noir, fashion films and a host of other influences quickly became the most debated movie of the festival.
In person, too, the artsploitation auteur wasted little time getting down to business as the self-proclaimed punk king of the global cinema world — a comparison that became literal in one instance. He also dropped a dis track on a countryman. Here is a sampling of his comments from the Neon Demon' news conference Friday afternoon.
How you approach the sick, ravishing object that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is entirely up to you. Nervy feminist provocation or misogynist freakshow? Hypnotic art piece or exploitative trash? I’m still wrestling with it myself, and have not yet ruled out the possibility that it may be all of the above.
Refn, who competed in Cannes years ago with the very good “Drive” (2011) and the very bad “Only God Forgives” (2013), has in some ways surpassed Quentin Tarantino as the filmmaker with the least shame or discretion when it comes to projecting his most demented fetishes and fantasies onto the screen. This is no small thing. For all the praise directors routinely get for the honesty of their visions, it can be galvanizing to encounter one who truly operates without a filter (except, of course, for whatever filter he uses to achieve those sizzling reds and cool blues in his gorgeously tinted widescreen images).
A voluptuously arid, glacially paced evisceration of an industry that routinely leaches beautiful women of sustenance and soul, “The Neon Demon” stars Elle Fanning as a naive, fresh-faced 16-year-old beauty who moves to L.A. and becomes the sensation of the modeling world. This prompts her impeccably coiffed, nipped-and-tucked rivals to begin their (very) slow descent into murderous jealousy.
CANNES, France — The opportunity to make a feature film is, for most directors, the ultimate grail, a pearl without price, but for Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it’s always been an offer he felt he had to refuse. Until he couldn’t.
The 62-year old Dudok de Wit, a Dutch filmmaker based in London, is not just any short-film animator. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award in that category and took home the Oscar in 2001 for his emotional “Father and Daughter.”
“When I direct a short, I do all the elements myself: the design, the backgrounds, everything, I don’t have to justify or explain, I just do it,” the filmmaker says. “With features there are always discussions, and that really puts me off. And I was not ready for the struggle of raising money.”
The Cannes Film Festival hits its one-week mark Wednesday night, and while for some that sounds like an endless amount of time, for those at the fest -- where big movies from the likes of Paul Verhoeven, Sean Penn and Nicolas Winding Refn are yet to premiere -- that's far from the end.
It's a good moment, in other words, to have a conversation about what's unfolded here at the so-called Olympics of cinema.
New administrations can mean a change in fortunes for controversial figures. But a Hillary Clinton presidency would not improve the status of Julian Assange, say those aligned with the Wikileaks founder, who remains in Ecuador's London embassy pending a Swedish extradition request.
In fact, they argue, it could well do the opposite.
"Under Clinton [Assange's situation] will possibly get worse," said Wikileaks staffer Jacob Applebaum.