Tonight, at the closing Palmarès ceremony, Jury President Steven Spielberg will announce the prize winners for the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival: the top-ranking Palme d’Or (Golden Palm), the second-place Grand Jury Prize, perhaps a third-place Jury Prize, plus awards for director, screenplay and acting. This year’s panel is stocked with five directors of presumably strong will (Ang Lee, Cristian Mungiu, Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase) and four distinguished actors (Christoph Waltz, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Auteuil and Vidya Balan), so you may infer heated discussion during the balloting and some surprises on the Lumière stage.
Those of us on the outside know nothing, but a consensus of informed ignorance has gathered around a few of the 20 titles in this year’s Competition: the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Ashgar Farhadi’s The Past and — for little other reason than that it has children in it, and Spielberg is thought to love children in movies — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son. Jia Zhang-ke could snag a consolation prize for A Touch of Sin, his four-part exposé of working-class life and death in China. Michael Douglas may win Best Actor for his sympathetic, spot-on impersonation of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Other films at Cannes will take months to reach the U.S., but you can see the Soderbergh biopic tonight on HBO.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Behind the Candelabra)
It’s the Jury’s loss, and Cannes’s, that two of the finest films in the Official Selection were shown outside the main competition and are thus ineligible for a closing-night prize. In All Is Lost, writer-director J.C. Chandor set himself some severe restrictions — just one character, with no name or known past, battling the elements on a damaged yacht deep in the Indian Ocean — and crafted a mature, mainstream epic of human resourcefulness, featuring a career-capping performance by Robert Redford. The Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof faced even greater obstacles in bringing Manuscripts Don’t Burn to the screen. Sentenced to prison by an Iranian court for his democratic filmmaking activities, Rasoulof clandestinely shot this true story about the Secret Service’s policy of not just silencing its most independent writers but of murdering them. If not a Palme d’Or for Rasoulof’s brilliant, brazen film, how about a Nobel Prize?
Two other important films are in the Competition and have a shot at the gold. If this year’s panel comprised only people named Corliss, this pair would take the Palme d’Or and the Grand Jury Prize. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza), is an unfailingly vivacious and poignant document of a great city, Rome, in its third millennium of glamorous decline and fall. And Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 & 2), from the Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, extends film naturalism to its artful extreme in its story of a teenage girl in lesbian love.
THE GREAT BEAUTY
“Roma o morte“—”Rome or death”—reads the inscription on a statue at the beginning of this sprawling depiction of high and low society. As seen through the tired, wizened eyes of journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), Garibaldi’s rallying cry might be changed to “Rome and death,” or possibly “Rome is dead,” for the Eternal City seems near exhaustion, perhaps clinically post-mortem, but still partying defiantly at its own wake. In his youth Jep wrote an acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus. Now he is 65, with a fabulous terrace apartment overlooking the Colosseum, and the debauchers who have gathered at his birthday celebration chatter and dance the night away like the guests at a Gatsby revel. Secure in his reputation as “king of the socialites,” Jep is gnawed by unrealized promise. He could not complete his second novel because, he says, “I was looking for the great beauty, and I never found it.”
Beginning with the sudden death of a Japanese tourist and ending with a 103-year-old nun’s arduous climb on her knees up the steps of St. John’s Church, The Great Beauty is gratefully indebted to three films by Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita, 8½ and Roma. Like the Marcello Mastroianni character in La Dolce Vita, Jep is a fastidious observer and enervated participant in Rome’s night life. Like Mastroianni in that film and 8½, he is bewitched and haunted by the vision of a seraphic young woman, his first love (“Now here’s something I want to show you,” she says before opening her blouse in Jep’s intensest memory.) Sorrentino — who won Cannes’ Jury Prize in 2008 for his Il Divo, also starring the great Servillo — is as preoccupied as Fellini with the way people fight emotional stasis with wild movement. He stuffs, nearly engorges, this 2 hour=hour-and-20-minute film with outrageous and gloriously visual anecdotes.
(READ: Mary Corliss on Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo)
One of these offers a clue to Sorrentino’s theme. On the Tebaldi estate, Jep encounters an exhaustive art project: more than 10,000 portraits of a man who was photographed every day of his life, by his father and later by himself, as one person’s record of his promise and growth and — since the man is still in his thirties — a preview of his decline. Jep, who has written about nearly everyone, and slept with them too, finds that he is on that slope to oblivion. As a child, he had loved “the smell of other people’s old houses.” His educated nose can still pick up the scent of grandeur, the rank odor of decay. And now he can smell it in himself.
Like Sorrentino’s corrosive comedy The Family Friend, the new film sees old men as vampires who sustain themselves by supping on the vitality of the young. And like Il Divo, his acid-etched portrait of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, The Great Beauty mixes journalism and satire. The odd and saving additions: an affection for nearly all of its outsize characters, and a melancholy that the flaming creatures of his acquaintance will soon burn out. Jep’s oldest friend, the aging poet Romano (Carolo Verdone), gets to this point when he asks, ”What’s the matter with nostalgia? It’s the only thing left for those of us who have no faith in the future.”
(READ: Richard Corliss on Sorrentino’s A Friend of the Family)
Participants at Cannes this year, who found just a middling slate of films, may be forgiven for having little faith in Cinema Present. But The Great Beauty, an essay on nostalgia, gives even the cynics a faith in the vibrancy of movies and the reviving artistry of Paolo Sorrentino.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR / THE LIFE OF ADÈLE
This is the one, based on a graphic novel, with the borderline-pornographic sex scenes. Two actresses hungrily explore every aspect and orifice of lesbian love in several explicit though not exploitative bedroom sequences. And Kechiche, whose The Secret of the Grain and Black Venus played at the Venice Film Festival, transforms Julie Maroh’s Blue Is a Warm Color into a passion poem to the torrential emotional resources of 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos. Kechiche even changed the main character’s name to his leading lady’s. Clearly, Abdellatif loves Adèle.
As a 17-year-old school girl Adèle wrestles with her sexuality; she is more comfortable and expert with herself than with a male classmate who pursues and adores her until they have a brief affair that she cuts off. Aroused by her first lesbic kiss, from a girl who later says she meant it only as a joke, Adèle meets the older Emma (Léa Seydoux), who’s studying Fine Arts but is already a practiced seducer. Their affairs spans about five years, during which Emma gets a few gallery shows and Adèle realizes her ambition of becoming a grade-shool teacher. Some lovers imagine they will find forever partners; others realize that people’s priorities and obsessions change. Often, the two types converge and collide as one couple.
(READ: Mary Corliss on Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus)
Considering that sex is an activity almost everyone participates in, and thinks about even more, it’s startling and depressing how few movies have connected their characters’ real lives with their erotic lives. Kechiche eagerly addresses that challenge. Unlike the slick, deodorized sexcapades in late-night Cinemax movies, the graphic scenes here express the personalities of Emma (who’s in charge) and Adèle (who’s in love). Beyond that, the movie fits the girl’s sexual dreams into her vocation as a gifted teacher of the very young. You’ll come for the sex and stay for the kids.
Exarchopoulos just about merits her director’s belief in her. Often photographed in extreme closeup, her eyes and nose running at the slightest provocation, she is a solidly built young woman who resembles a more vibrant and giving Jennifer Lawrence. She traces Adèle’s journey from a teen who gobbles candy bars as a prescription for her misery to a woman in her mid-twenties attempting one last desperate play for the elusive Emma. “I have infinite tenderness for you,” Emma tells Adèle, ”and will my whole life.” Exarchopoulos, with the talent for rendering each volcanic emotion on her face, seduced Cannes viewers with that same tenderness.
If The Great Beauty is the Corlisses Palme d’Or prize, Exarchopoulos wins our award for Best and Most Fearless Actress.
[Editors' note: Blue Is the Warmest Color was just announced as winner of Cannes' Palme d'Or — check in later to read the Corlisses take on the complete list of winners at Cannes 2013]