Cannes 2019, Day 12: Vampire shrink caps off most dazzling festival in years
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Virginie Efira hits a career high as the protagonist of Justine Triet’s “Sibyl”, a clever and stylish thriller that wrapped up the most exciting – and competitive – Cannes Film Festival in years. Time for our Palme d'Or predictions.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival had given us just about every film genre imaginable, from western to bromance to cop procedural. But one Cannes staple was missing: the psychotherapist thriller, that very French fascination.
Enter Justine Triet with “Sibyl”, her first shot at the most prestigious prize in cinema, and a rewarding one too. It stars Virginie Efira as the titular shrink who becomes too emotionally invested in the trials of her patient Margot, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. Though somewhat fanciful in its plot, I thought Triet’s film was more thoughtful than François Ozon’s seductive but silly erotic thriller “L’Amant Double”, which premiered here two years ago. It helped, perhaps, that “Sibyl” gave us a woman’s take on women’s sexual desires, regrets and tribulations over maternity.
The story opens in Paris, where we find the protagonist in the midst of a career switch to novelist. Sibyl is at a creative dead-end, until she reluctantly agrees to take on one last patient, who will supply the subject matter of her future novel. “Keep the drama fictional,” her editor keeps repeating, even as Sibyl does the exact opposite. She embarks on a fictional journey that “plagiarises” both Margot’s conundrum and her own life experience – eventually ending up in Stromboli, that most cinematic of islands where Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini famously conceived a film and a baby.
“Sibyl” is one of several entries in this year’s competition to feature a film-within-the-film, with a delightful part for “Toni Erdmann” star Sandra Huller as a nerve-wracked director whose movie gets caught up in the emotional storm kicked off by Sibyl and Margot. Efira gives perhaps her finest performance to date, making her a late favourite for the female acting award (particularly since there were relatively few big roles for women this year).
Speaking of awards, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood” has already picked up its first prize on the Croisette, for the least famous member of its star-studded cast: pit bull Brandy. As per tradition, awards season in Cannes kicked off with the Palm Dog on Friday, rewarding the best canine performance of the Festival. Tarantino showed up in person to pick up the prize for his “wonderful actress”. And since my Palm Dog guess proved right, I might as well give my two cents as to who might fetch the other awards at tonight’s closing ceremony.
It’s been a fascinating competition, with an exciting and balanced roster of newcomers and veteran directors vying for the film world's most prestigious reward. Cannes 2019 was timely and political, touching on an array of pressing contemporary issues including climate change, fundamentalism, emigration, genetic modification, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Many filmmakers veered deep into genre cinema, from fugitive thriller to sci-fi western and zombie fests. And there was Hollywood confectionery aplenty on the red carpet, more than making up for the dearth of star power witnessed last year.
The main competition featured a record-equaling five Palme d’Or-winning, two of them two-time winners. Tarantino produced his best film in years, taking us to the source of his dreams and obsessions with an ode to Hollywood at the time of the Manson murders. Ken Loach showed he is becoming sharper and more pertinent by the film with “Sorry We Missed You”, his indictment of the zero-hours gig economy, which I thought was even better than his Palme d’Or-winning “I, Daniel Blake”. Terrence Malick recovered a measure of form with his much-touted return to narrative, “A Hidden Life”, the story of an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis, while the Dardenne brothers gave a solid but not particularly inspired take on a teen’s Islamist radicalisation in “The Young Ahmed”.
And then there was Abdelatif Kechiche, of “Blue is the Warmest Colour” fame, who delivered the shock of the festival with his second instalment in the “Mektoub My Love” summer-romance saga. It was a leery, more than three-hour-long nightclub extravaganza that placed his film firmly in the realm of endurance cinema. Many critics were outraged, lamenting a disgrace for Kechiche and the world’s premiere film festival. But if Cannes can no longer take daring, provocative fare, then we might as well close shop at once.
This year’s high standards mean picking a favourite for the Palme d’Or is no easy task, though I thought two films stood out from the rest. Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish auteur beloved of Cannes, but who is still Palme-less, recaptured the emotional heft of his finest work with the self-referential “Pain and Glory”. And South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho gave us the thrill of the festival with his terrific “Parasite”, a dark satire on the gap between rich and poor, as hilarious as it was harrowing. If I had to add an outsider, it would be Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, an elegant and intriguing tale of love and art in 18th-century costume, carried by an all-female cast. Such an outcome would of course make history, since only one female director – Jane Campion, in 1993 – has ever won the Palme d’Or before.
Should they fail to land a bigger prize, both Bong and Sciamma would also be obvious contenders for the Best Screenplay award – along with Brazilian duo Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, whose eerie sci-fi western “Bacurau” marked a brilliant foray into genre (and a scathing critique of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil). Any one of the abovementioned directors would be worthy of the Best Director prize, though my preference goes to China’s Diao Yinan. Shot with extraordinary inventiveness, his fugitive thriller “The Wild Goose Lake” shines a seedy neon light on a provincial China’s criminal underworld.
Directors cannot win two prizes for the same film, but their actors can – which is good news for Almodovar’s lead Antonio Banderas, whose deeply moving turn in “Pain and Glory” makes him a favourite for the male acting award. The Spaniard faces competition from Italy’s Pierfrancesco Favino, who plays a prominent Mafioso turned informant in Marco Bellocchio’s excellent “The Traitor”, about the Sicilian mob. And then there’s Brad Pitt, who put in the performance of a lifetime as a stuntman in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…”.
Should they be inclined to reward new talent, jury members will find worthy candidates in French directors Ladj Ly and Mati Diop (who also holds Senegalese nationality), both of them newcomers to Cannes. “Les Misérables”, Ly’s angry flick on police brutality in France’s run-down suburbs, provided the social-realist shock the festival always likes to include in its line-up, while Diop’s “Atlantics” offered a fresh perspective on the refugee crisis as seen from African shores.
While there were no duds this year, Cannes 2019 featured a handful of disappointments, including Ira Sachs’ family drama “Frankie”, Jessica Hausner’s creepy sci-fi outing “Little Joe”, and Jim Jarmusch’s zombie opener “The Dead Don’t Die”. But it’s worth remembering that the critics and jury members rarely think alike. So we can expect this evening’s closing ceremony to spring the usual surprises.