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Cannes Dispatch: Part Six: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

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Monday, May 26, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin


CANNES, France—The last is first.

French director Laurent Cantet’s brilliant, nuanced and humane The Class captured the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top honor on Sunday night. Jury president Sean Penn said the vote was unanimous. In a year of strong French selections, Cantet's film became the first national work since Maurice Pialat’s reviled Under the Sun of Satan in 1987 to claim the honor.

The festival began smashingly and ended beautifully. Historically, the program resembles Kremlinologists during the Cold War in how it is subject to all manner of speculation. The Cantet film, for one, was omitted from the original list of titles in late April in Paris. It was also the last competition title selected, and the final film shown in the competition.

That is now all gloriously irrelevant. The film marked a pungent artistic return for Cantet. His first theatrical feature, Human Resources, announced a particular and special talent for observational subtlety and group dynamics. His second work, Time Out, about a mid-level corporate officer who becomes so disgusted with his life that he invents a dangerous alternate life, is one of the truly superb French works of the last decade. (Canet faltered badly on his third feature, Heading South, exploring both the sexual and class divisions of wealthy older women who seek emotional comfort in the lives of impoverished Caribbean boys.)

The Class is a great deal more exciting than its title implies. Its French title, Entre les murs (or “Between the Walls”), is far more evocative and descriptive. The movie eschews all manner of background or expository characteristics. Writer and teacher Francois Begaudeau plays himself, adapting his own 2006 autobiographical book about his experiences as an instructor of French at a tough, racially mixed Paris junior high school. The movie unfolds entirely in the school’s surroundings — the camera meticulously shifts between the classroom, or a courtyard where the kids play soccer.

The story — loose, spontaneous, natural — unfolds over the course of a typical school year. By immersing the work in social and behavioral detail — the bodies, the faces, the way kids speak — the narrative details the various exchanges between the demanding, Socratic teacher and his students. The emotional intensity and rudeness of the “dialogues” beautifully illustrates the fight for power, authority and control within the rigorous milieu.

The movie sharply points out the French pedagogical tendency of “confrontation,” the intensely critical or questioning nature where nothing is out of bounds, like the teacher’s sexual orientation. Cantet and his regular writer, Robin Campillo, worked with Begaudeau to shape the material into a screenplay. The movie is never really about differentiating fiction and biography. The kids are mostly nonprofessionals, and they all go by their first names in the movie, though they are not playing themselves. In his acceptance speech, Cantet acknowledged the kids for their “energy and their force of nature.”

Never turning didactic or sentimental, the film quietly and meticulously reveals the complex social portraiture of France and how questions of language, cultural identity and social inclusion are changing radically from the influx of second and third generation of children of the country’s communities of North African and Arab émigrés.

In the days leading up to the announcement, the journalists and critics struggled to find a consensus title, much a less to coalesce around. On the first day, during the jury press conference, Penn startled the crowd by announcing the jury is going to be “careful to make directors conscious of the times in which they live.” It suggested favoring the socially conscious and politically relevant worjs at the expense of more artistically significant achievements.

Of the 22 competition titles (or 23, if Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che is considered separate works), I thought French director Arnaud Desplechin’s astounding A Christmas Tale was the finest work by a wide margin. Critical response to the film was polarized, and I held out little hope of its taking the top prize. Most speculation imagined the Palme d’Or was to be settled over Israeli director Ari Folman’s graphically animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, or Soderbergh’s Che. Italian director Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah appeared a strong sleeper or compromise choice.

Waltz with Bashir was shut out. Gomorrah captured the grand prix, or runner-up award. The magisterial Catherine Deneuve and Clint Eastwood won a special prize for their career achievements. Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan earned the best director prize for Three Monkeys. Two years ago, his Climates was the best film in competition, and it went unrewarded.

Every year the festival makes at least one very lamentable and indefensible prize. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won the prix du jury, or jury prize for Il divo, a loud and assaultive study of the political and business reign of Giulio Andreotti. The movie starts promisingly with a burst of visual flamboyance and forward drive, but Sorrentino never modulates his approach. The work turns increasingly repetitious and assaultive. I was also somewhat bewildered by the screenplay prize to the Dardennes for Lorna’s Silence. “They won enough Cannes awards. This is excessive,” a friend immediately wrote.

Brazilian Sandra Corveloni won the best actress prize for her impressive work in Walter Salles’ and Daniela Thomas’ Linha de passé. Corveloni plays a single mother trying desperately to help her four young sons navigate the hellishly restricted, impoverished backgrounds. Rather tragically, Corveloni lost her own child recently and was forced to miss the festival. “I don’t think the jury knew this, but thank you,” said Thomas.

Realizing that my personal choice, A Christmas Tale, had virtually no chance, I privately hoped for Che. The film also deeply polarized critics. The trade publication Variety, which often functions as the industry conscience because of the editor Peter Bart was once a failed Hollywood executive, annihilated the film with its prominent page-one review (“No doubt it will be back to the drawing board”). Better critics, like the Village Voice and Stop Smiling contributor J. Hoberman divined its considerable power and merits (“Soderbergh’s single-minded meditation on the practice of guerrilla warfare, the creation of militant superstardom, and the nature of objective camera work is at once visceral and intellectual, sumptuous and painful, boldly simplified and massively detailed”).

At the film’s press conference, Soderbergh remarked that filmmakers are constantly assailed for doing the same thing over and over, but the moment they try something different, as he has spectacularly with his avant garde biographical film, they are thrown under the bus for their impudence and obstinacy.

Already the movie’s detractors (who obviously know more about filmmaking than Soderbergh) are admonishing deep cuts and halving the material into a single movie. The Palme d’Or is one way of assuring the movie could be distributed in its current form. Che was constantly assailed for being “unfinished,” but Soderbergh evidently believes it requires only minor, because he has already started shooting a new movie in central Illinois.

According to Penn, the only other unanimous vote was for Benicio Del Toro’s lively and commanding lead performance. “I dedicate this to the man himself,” he said.

It was a fitting, unpredictable and right way to end.

 

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