If there is one unmistakable Hollywood icon, it is Steven Spielberg who gave us movies as brutally Hollywoodian as ET, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
Yet as the head of the nine-member jury at the recent Cannes Film Festival, he was bold to honour a cinema that was far removed from his kind of genre. He must be patted for stepping outside his own comfort zone to pay tribute to movies that were not only refreshingly different, but also courageous enough to present the explicit - sexual and political.
Nobody really expected him and his team – with jurors as distinguished as Christoph Waltz, Daniel Auteuil, Cristian Mungiu, Ang Lee and Vidya Balan among others – to give the top Palm d’Or to the lesbian love story from France, Blue is the Warmest Colour. Its director, Abdellatif Kechiche, had in 2009 disappointed us with his Cannes entry, Black Venus. But he scored high at the festival’s 66th edition, which ended on May 26.
Alternately described as the tale of a girl who is sexually awakened by an older woman, Blue is the Warmest Colour flew high on a day when protestors were marching on Parisian streets condemning same sex marriage. Spielberg could not care less, and the film certainly deserved the Palm. So did its actress Adele Exarchopoulos, who plays the 15 year-old.
But Bernice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi’s set-in-Paris The Past clinched this statuette. As a woman torn between a former husband and a live-in boyfriend with a troublesome teenage daughter thrown in, Bejo could not have had an easy time doing the part, particularly after the far less complicated role she had in The Artist, also at Cannes earlier.
However, Exarchopoulos – in my opinion – was miles ahead of Bejo, as the girl caught between hetero and homosexuality and who finally has to let go of her love. It could not have been easy for her or her partner, Lea Seydoux, to have performed all those long lesbian (unsimulated) acts and in full view of the camera and crew! What could have been as trying was the angst Exarchopoulos had to exhibit. In comparison, Bejo had a cake walk.
The Spielberg jury was as courageous when it awarded the Best Director Prize to Mexico’s Amat Escalante for his turgid, violent shocker “Heli,” which, among other staged atrocities, featured a scene of a man having his groin set on fire. “I wasn’t expecting this,” said Mr. Escalante, a sentiment shared by some critics. But this is great news for Mexican cinema, he gushed.
The jury honoured yet another daring film, China’s A Touch of Sin, which tells through a fictional account some of the country’s most tragic events like sweatshop workers’ suicide, corruption in the railways and so on. The helmer Jia Zhang-ke, who took away the Best Screenplay Palm, said “China is changing so fast. I think that movie is the best way for me to look for freedom”.
As for the Best Actor award, it went to Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a black-and-white look at a fading alcoholic (Dern) and his melancholic son who make an absurdly comic road trip in post-recession America.
However, Michael Douglas in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra as a gay piano maestro was superb in a touching narrative set in an age when nobody in the American showbiz could dare jump out of the closet. Believe me, it took me quite a while to realise that I was looking at Douglas, so impeccably he had disappeared into the character. He should have been the Best Actor.
Well, I would still give the jury top ranking for showering the Palms on Blue is the Warmest Colour, A Touch of Sin and Heli. Had only Douglas and Exarchopoulos been rewarded, the jury would have done a perfect job.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the Cannes Film Festival for the 23rd year this May)