Palme d’Or Preview: Handicapping Five Top Contenders at Cannes

On the Festival's final day, we consider films from the U.S., the U.K., Romania, Denmark and France

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Matthew McConaughey in 'Mud'

Tonight the Cannes Jury, led by Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti, will announce its awards, culminating in the Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Front-runners include Michael Haneke’s Amour and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, which we reviewed in earlier blogs. But other contenders have emerged in the past few days; here are thoughts about five of the contenders. Keep in mind that every Cannes honors list packs a few surprises. As of Sunday morning, except for the Jury members, nobody knows anything.

MUD

Classic literature teaches that when a boy befriends a man on the run from society, the boy is right and society is wrong. Writer-director Jeff Nichols applies that lesson from Great Expectations and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his romantic melodrama Mud, which concluded this year’s Competition slate on a high note. Two naïve 14-year-olds (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) slip off to a remote island, the hideout of a killer named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Why? Because they need to trust their innocent instincts and assist a man who admits to being a murderer. Mud insists that he killed for love: his victim had abused his longtime sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

(READ: Richard Corliss’ review of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter)

In a festival seething with films set in the humid, near-mythical American South (The Paperboy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killing Them Softly), the Arkansas-native director mines visual poetry from the rural locations in his home state. After the storm of his first film, Shotgun Stories (also set and shot in Arkansas), and the apocalyptic stress of Take Shelter, Nichols’ new film is painted on a wider canvas and aims for more mainstream emotions. That it finds them is due in part to McConaughey’s ability to inhabit a character who seems both highly agitated and utterly persuasive. Primary praise, though, goes to the two young actors and their natural fusion with their roles.  The film embraces the dilemmas of truth and love as perceived through the boys’ open eyes and unjaded hearts.

BEYOND THE HILLS

One of four previous Palme d’Or laureates in the Competition (the others being Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach), Cristian Mungiu won in 2007 for his second feature film, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Known colloquially as “the Romanian abortion film,” 4 Months built suspense into the plight of three people: a college student who needs to halt her pregnancy, her more competent friend who tries to help her and the sinister abortionist, “Mr. Bebe,” who has an unusual notion of what constitutes fair payment.

(READ: Richard Corliss on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)

Two other young women, and a man with dictatorial power over both their lives, are at the center of Behind the Walls. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has entered the New Hill Monastery, a strict Orthodox convent run by a priest (Valeriu Andriuta). She is visited by Alina (Cristina Flutur), her best friend from their years in an orphanage; she hopes to woo the young novitiate out of the convent and back into her affections. Angered by the severity of the place and Voichita’s refusal to leave it, Alina flails at the priest and some of his nuns and is sedated in a hospital. When she returns and continues her bizarre behavior, the priest exacts a more rigorous cure for Alina’s apostasy. Based on two fact-based novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills  examines whether an act of intended salvation can be twisted into an act of cruelty.

THE ANGELS’ SHARE

With 11 of his films selected for the Competition since 1981, director Ken Loach is Cannes’ favorite British auteur. The Festival loves the Socialist agenda the 75-year-old director brandishes in his hardscrabble stories of working class strivers, as well as his rough-hewn camera style and the density — no, the unintelligibility — of his actors’ accents. (Many of his films are in English with English subtitles.) Loach fever reached its peak at Cannes six years ago, when The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his period drama about the Irish revolution of 1920, received the Palme d’Or. His new film, the 12th written by Paul Laverty, has a jauntier tone. It’s a Ken Loach heist movie.

(READ: Mary Corliss’ review of Loach’s Looking for Eric at Cannes 2009)

Robbie (Paul Brannigan), is just out of a Glasgow jail for a little incident in which he kicked an innocent stranger in the face until the young man lost sight in one eye. But the film wants viewers to believe he’s a good lad, devoted to his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) and their newborn son, and with the right mentoring from a sympathetic social worker (John Henshaw) he could realize his dreams. Robbie’s dream: get his ex-con mates to help him to steal a few quarts of a priceless malt scotch, then sell it on the black market. Loach then takes a 90-degree turn from lumpen reality to Mission: Impossible fantasy. Loach’s caper movie is a misfit in this Festival.

THE HUNT

Parents once told their children not to take candy from a stranger; today, at home and in school, the warning of potential sexual abuse is more explicit. But there are no guidelines for an adult unjustly cited for pedophilia — ask the defendants in the McMartin Preschool trial of the 1980s. Unable to prove a negative, the accused man or woman faces ostracism and worse from a society so conditioned to take any charge of sexual predation as an excuse to take violent retribution, like the villagers against the monster in Frankenstein, on a man more innocent than the child who brought the charge.

(READ: Richard Corliss on the Dogme style of moviemaking)

From Thomas Vinterberg, whose 1998 drama Celebration dealt with child abuse — and was the first feature adhering to the Dogme filmmaking strategy that Vinterberg founded with Lars von Trier —  comes The Hunt, a thoughtful political statement that is also a sizzling thriller. When Lukas (Mads Mikkelsen), in a new job as kindergarten teacher, rebuffs the doe-eyed admiration of five-year-old Klara (Annika Wederkoff), the girl tells a school supervisor that Lukas exposed himself to her. Soon the innocent man is the star of his own Kafkaesque nightmare: the townspeople think Lukas is a cockroach that must be stamped out. The director’s subtle craft stokes the tension for nearly two hours; and when it snaps and is resolved, the lessons are murky. Mikkelsen burrows under Lukas’s skin, allowing the viewer to see his fury rise, his hope for justice evaporate; life almost visibly seeps out of him. In one of the Festival’s strongest films, Mikkelsen gives a performance so bold and nuanced it should be called heroic.

HOLY MOTORS

Acclaimed and despised in roughly equal numbers among the press core, this is the wild card of the Competition — it could receive the Palme d’Or or nothing at all — and the Festival’s truly wild film. Director Leos Carax, who made the heralded Boy Meets Girl and Bad Blood by the time he was 25, then marked time with just two more features in his next quarter century, now enters a vigorous second prime. His movie tries to summarize all of cinema history, from the first experiments in recording motion to gangster films, heavy melodrama and musicals, while racing mad, hysterical, naked through 11 episodes. A classicist and a surrealist, Carax both denounces the virtual world (the gravestones in a cemetery read, “Visit my website”) and demonstrates, through his film’s ravishing digital cinematography, that virtual can be voluptuous.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Cosmopolis at Cannes)

Like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, also in the Competition, Holy Motors follows a wealthy man in a stretch limousine as he completes various appointments. The similarities end there, since Oscar (Denis Lavant, quirky star of every Carax film) is lively and ready to try anything, He performs in a Spandex suit for motion-capture videography, plays the Beast to Eva Mendes’ burka-bedecked Beauty, flirts with suicidal songstress as she sings the romantic ballad “Who Were We” — all while being driven to distraction or destruction by his elegant chauffeur Edith Scob, who occasionally dons the same white mask she wore 52 years ago in Georges Franju’s majestic horror film Eyes Without a Face. At times the invention gets wearying; Holy Motors might best be seen with pauses for reflection between each segment. But Cannes needs the occasional movie that moves, explodes, exasperates, astounds and Holy Motors does that.  It is a transporting vehicle.

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