Cannes 2017: Sweden's Ruben Östlund wins Palme d’Or for 'The Square'

Alberto Pizzoli, AFP | Swedish director Ruben Ostlund reacts to his film ‘The Square’ winning the top Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, on May 28, 2017

Swedish director Ruben Östlund has won a surprise Palme d'Or for his satire of the art world and confused male identity, wrapping up a 70th anniversary edition of the Cannes Film Festival that was dominated by middle-class woes.


Marking the latest in a long list of Cannes upsets, the nine-member jury led by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar handed cinema’s most prestigious prize to the Swedish director for his sprawling and daring satire. Once again, the verdict confounded the predictions of film critics, who had picked Robin Campillo’s AIDS drama “120 Beats per Minute” and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s chilling family procedural “Loveless” as their favourites. Campillo took the second-place Grand Prix, while Zvyagintsev got the Jury Prize, the equivalent of a bronze medal.

In other categories, Diane Kruger took Best Actress for her part in Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade”, while the male acting award went to Joaquin Phoenix for his role in Lynne Ramsay’s deeply divisive “You Were Never Really Here”. That film was the surprise winner of two awards, scooping a joint prize for Best Screenplay with Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”. There was more surprise in the Best Director category, the prestigious award going to Sofia Coppola for her lavish art album “The Beguiled”.

A still from Ruben Östlund's "The Square".
A still from Ruben Östlund's "The Square".

Sunday’s ceremony capped a lackluster competition dominated by tales of insufferable egos, dysfunctional families and middle-class woes. A mixed bag sparing in both gems and duds, the 19 films in competition this year often touched on similar themes. There were dysfunctional families aplenty, a gallery of insufferable and egotistic men, a hefty helping of vodka-infused Russian grimness, and a never ending supply of self-pitying bourgeois Europeans.

With some notable exceptions – think the Safdie brothers’ entertaining “Good Time” or Noah Baumbach’s excellent “The Meyerowitz Stories”, both of which left empty-handed – it was all fairly grim, but coherently so. Considering the wealth of films about the migrant crisis, this year’s line-up was a very contemporary affair, but it was a shame that one had to look outside the Palme d’Or competition to find characters that were not middle class with middle class problems.

Such problems are at the very heart of Östlund’s film, a meditation on white, bourgeois, liberal guilt, in which selfish individuals profess to abide by lofty values, only to come up way short. Danish actor Claes Bang gives a sterling performance as Christian, the dashing, sophisticated and confidently tolerant chief curator of a prestigious art museum whose life goes into meltdown after his phone is stolen.

Disquieting and often hilarious, “The Square” is a slick and enthralling situational comedy, an allegory of a dysfunctional society made hollow by individualism and indifference. It featured a stunning set-piece with a wild, bare-chested man performing as an ape wreaking havoc at a tuxedoed gala dinner. But I felt Östlund’s overextended film tended to lose its focus towards the end, and it’s a shame he undermines his message with a somewhat heavy-handed parody of the contemporary art scene, a world that surely does not require caricature to invite a little ridicule.

From left to right: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Adèle Haenel and Arnaud Valois attend the Cannes photocall for Robin Campillo's "120 Beats Per Minute" on May 20, 2017.
From left to right: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Adèle Haenel and Arnaud Valois attend the Cannes photocall for Robin Campillo's "120 Beats Per Minute" on May 20, 2017.

Many will be disappointed that Campillo didn’t win the Palme d’Or for his deeply moving drama about gay activists striving to live life to the fullest even as they battle disease and indifference. Campillo has drawn on his own experience as an ACT UP member in this homage to the direct-action group that did much to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s France, at the height of the crisis.

A vibrant and powerful ensemble movie, “120 Beats per Minute” is also a painful reminder that many in the political and pharmaceutical establishment felt the plight of the gay community was none of their business. The mostly male cast includes stand-out performances by Arnaud Valois and Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, whose Keatonesque delicacy conceals the fire and rage inside him. There were tears aplenty at its Cannes screening, though Campillo creditably refrains from maudlin sentimentality. His defiant film is steeped in tragedy and loss, but the fight goes on.

While “120 Beats” was also a celebration of love and friendship, there were no such redeeming features in Zyagintsev’s Jury Prize winner “Loveless”. Centred on a runaway child and a broken marriage, the Russian director’s seering feature is a slick but chilling portrayal of yuppies made hollow by selfishness and materialism. A vicious family drama that veers into lost-child procedural, this movie ripples with insight on a society devoid of empathy.

Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev and "Loveless" actors Maryana Spivak and Alexey Rozin at the Cannes photocall on Thursday.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev and "Loveless" actors Maryana Spivak and Alexey Rozin at the Cannes photocall on Thursday.

There was more bleakness in the joint winners of the screenplay award. Lanthimos’s “Sacred Deer” revolves around a successful and beautiful family of four, and their ultimately devastating encounter with a sinister teenage boy (played by an outstanding Barry Keoghan). Like his previous film “The Lobster”, it stars a delightful Colin Farrell in a quaint, unheroic role, alongside Nicole Kidman.

A slickly choreographed operetta of repressed guilt and self-harm, the movie is full of the Greek director’s trademark dark, absurdist humour – though this time Lanthimos pushes further into horror. So does Scotland’s Ramsay in her hallucinatory psychological drama “You Were Never Really Here”. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, it involves a brutal and tormented hitman who sets out on a deadly mission to rescue a teenage girl from sex traffickers.

Phoenix’s moving portrayal of a former soldier damaged by war and a childhood of abuse won a surprise second award for Ramsay’s film, which received cheers and jeers in equal measure when it was screened at the very end of the festival. There was greater consensus around Diane Kruger’s award for her part in the otherwise disappointing “In the Fade”. The German actress was widely regarded as the saving grace in Fatih Akin’s revenge movie, about a woman whose husband is killed in a terrorist bomb attack. She dedicated her award to all victims of terrorist attacks.

While terrorism didn’t feature as prominently on the screen as one might have expected, its shadow was ever present during the festival. Despite their best efforts not to dampen the party, security forces placed this seaside town in virtual lockdown, and the multiplication of metal detectors and meticulous bag and body searches caused endless queues and substantial delays. There were no frights other than an abandoned bag in an empty auditorium, that sent some people scampering. But this week’s deadly terrorist attack in the UK was a gruesome reminder of the persistent threat, and festival organisers held an emotional tribute to the victims of the horror in Manchester.

"The Beguiled" director Sophia Coppola (second from right) poses with Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst.
"The Beguiled" director Sophia Coppola (second from right) poses with Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst.

Given the number of bleak topics in the Palme d’Or competition, it was a relief to have a few lighter films too. Sofia’s Coppola’s lavish and fantastically foolish “The Beguiled” provided just that. Some critics were miffed by her Best Director award, but the film is funny, impertinent and often quite beautiful. Set during the American Civil War, it stars Colin Farrell (again) as a wounded Unionist soldier who finds refuge in a girls’ seminary – of all places – deep in enemy territory. Naturally, the girls are in a flutter over the sudden arrival of a handsome and flirtatious male they have to tend to, and soon the house is taken over by sexual tension and rivalry, with dire consequences.

“The Beguiled” also stars Nicole Kidman, who received a special 70th anniversary award for her whopping four roles in Cannes this year. The Australian actress was a ubiquitous feature of the festival, and yet somehow she was no longer in town on Sunday to pick up her prize.

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