There are two ways of looking at film festival programming, and both have some merit. The first, charitable view is that while festivals have the responsibility of selecting good films, they are ultimately at the mercy of what's in the pipeline. In the case of a festival as prestigious as Cannes, which, more than most festivals, has its pick of whatever it wants, a weak year can only be a function of bad timing. Great films simply weren't ready.
The other point of view on programming is that if a festival can't find enough top-notch movies to fill out a 19-feature competition, then the problem is within. The festival isn't looking hard enough. Cannes is chided annually for lacking gender, racial, and geographic diversity in its competition, and homogeneity is certainly part of the problem. But this year's competition, more than most, felt overwhelmed by a kind of tyranny of classicism. Anything too experimental, too outré, or (mainly) too star-free wasn't in the running for the Palme.
Meanwhile, we got treated to an annual helping of familiar types of films: dour portraits of corruption in Russia; sendups of the venality of the bourgeoisie; a great-man biopic so boring audience that members should have been handed eye clamps. (Jacques Doillon's "Rodin" was, as an audience member bellowed at the end—if I understood his shouting in either Spanish or Italian correctly—a crystalline example of "old man's cinema.")
What if you can't find enough good films, and it's your festival's 70th anniversary, and there's a great deal of pressure to put on a good show? Maybe looking to new auteurs is the way to go. Or even reshuffle your own lineups: Valeska Grisebach's "Western," from Un Certain Regard, wouldn't have brought stars to the red carpet, but it got better reviews than most of the films in competition. Ditto Sean Baker's terrific "The Florida Project," shown in one of Cannes' arch-rival programs, the Directors' Fortnight. The closest equivalent in competition, Josh and Benny Safdie's "Good Time"—like "The Florida Project," a gritty indie that makes extensive use of nonprofessional actors—jolted exhausted viewers on Thursday morning.
Kvetch, kvetch. No movie in this year's competition approached the awfulness of "Burnt by the Sun 2" or the rest of the mostly uninspired docket in 2010, by my lights Cannes' last clunker year. But even that competition yielded Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece "Certified Copy" and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's great "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," the first Thai Palme d'Or winner. Nothing in 2017 jumped out the way the way those two films did, the way "Toni Erdmann" did last year, or "Blue Is the Warmest Color" did in 2013.
To be fair, in a sea of bad-to-pretty-good, there was still room for some competition films to be underrated. Brian Selznick's book "Wonderstruck" could have been turned into a brain-dead children's movie rather than the serene and beautiful one that Todd Haynes has made, which shows real respect for cinematic and literary traditions. Michael Haneke's "Happy End" will probably look better in the coming months to audiences who aren't sick of Michael Haneke movies. And Ruben Ostlünd's "The Square" brimmed over with great ideas; who cares if it was a little too long?
Still, the sense that this was an underwhelming year is widespread; as of this writing, only one film has cracked a 3.0 average on the Screen International grid. Sunday night's big prize may be less of a Palme d'Or than a Palme Default.
Before I get to my predictions, I should note that there are three competition titles I haven't seen: Michel Hazanavicius's "Redoubtable," Naomi Kawase's "Radiance," and Hong Sangsoo's "The Day After." None have been touted as major contenders, but I'll update my predictions if necessary after I see some of them during the competition reprise on Sunday.
My calculus is heavily influenced by both (a) critical consensus, which is frequently wrongheaded when it comes to the Cannes awards and (b) speculation about the motives of the jury members, whom I don't know and probably shouldn't psychoanalyze. Even so, it should be noted that the jury president, Pedro Almodóvar, is one of Cannes' most overdue regulars. He's competed five times and has always gone home Palme-less. (That had to hurt in 2006, when he was perceived as a frontrunner for "Volver.") I'm guessing that he won't want to give an unprecedented third Palme to Haneke, whose "The White Ribbon" beat his "Broken Embraces" in 2009—so strike "Happy End" off the list of potential winners right away. Every other director in competition has yet to win a Palme.
Palme d'Or: "Loveless." Andrey Zvyagintsev took a big step forward with "Leviathan," which won Best Screenplay here in 2014. His latest, a portrait of a separated couple whose child goes missing, pulls off several difficult balances. It's classical and modern, accessible and ambiguous, austere and beautiful, leisurely yet compelling, and allegorical yet concrete. It's the sort of film, in other words, that could bridge divides across a jury. As a movie that seems likely to grow with repeat viewings, it also has one eye on eternity.
Grand Jury Prize (second place): "BPM (Beats Per Minute)." A lot of writers are pegging Robin Campillo's AIDS drama, about the French branch of Act Up, for the Palme. It's stylistically quite similar to "The Class," which won in 2008 (and which Campillo co-wrote), although I thought the compelling, process-oriented scenes—meetings in which Act Up members debate strategy and tactics—gave way to more conventional weepie material in the overlong second half. Unlike "Loveless," it doesn't seem like a film that people might be talking about decades from now. But it's almost certain to win something, so I'm placing it here.
Jury Prize: Sergei Loznitsa, "A Gentle Creature." Some years this prize functions like third place; other years it feels more like a catch-all citation. It could go to anything, but Loznitsa's rigorously controlled portrait of a woman trying to find out what's happened to her imprisoned husband in a bottomless pit of corruption in Russia is the sort of film that will impress formally minded jurors and repel anyone eager for a film to hit more than one note over two and a half hours.
Best Director: Lynne Ramsay, "You Were Never Really Here." Ramsay swooped in just last night with the final competition film to screen; it may well be the best of the lot. A spare, glancing portrait of a bearded, laconic New York man (Joaquin Phoenix) who rescues young women from sex traffickers, it's as oblique as "The Counselor" and just as unexpected. Working a typically fragmented style, Ramsay ("Morvern Callar," "We Need to Talk About Kevin") has been pared down the scenario, from a novel by Jonathan Ames, to its essential elements; no shot or cut is wasted, while Jonny Greenwood's nerve-jangling score augments the atmosphere of unease. The jury may also want to send a message to the festival by giving Best Director to a woman—particularly since she actually did the competition's best directing.
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman, "The Beguiled." The surprise of Sofia Coppola's remake of "The Beguiled" is that it follows Don Siegel's 1971 original pretty closely, down to the iffy sexual politics; it just cuts out large chunks. And it has enough defenders that it will probably prevail somewhere. Kidman, as the matriarch of a girls' boarding school in 1864 Virginia, has the showiest role. She was also at Cannes this year with four films. Forget her (typically) excellent acting; anyone who endures that many press conferences deserves an award just for good sportsmanship. Possible upsets: Diane Kruger in Fatih Akin's "In the Fade," for her portrait of a woman seeking revenge for the deaths of her husband and son in a terrorist attack; or Vasilina Makovtseva for her unrelenting stoicism in "A Gentle Creature."
Best Actor: Robert Pattinson, "Good Time." The Safdie brothers' "Good Time" was the edgy upstart of competition, a sort of genre outgrowth of their "Heaven Knows What." Especially in a placid lineup, any film this energetic is going to stand out, and there's no question that the Safdies lean heavily on Pattinson's against-type performance as a New York thief who manages to get himself into deeper trouble with every move. Possible upsets: Claes Bang for his layered self-effacement as a museum director in "The Square," or Adam Sandler (seriously) for Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)."
Best Screenplay: "The Square." Although Ostlund's compositions are as carefully constructed as his dialogue, words—and whether the characters choose them carefully—are a crucial component of this study of trust, masculinity, and hypocrisy.
70th-anniversary prize: Because it's a decennial anniversary year, the jury has a chance to award an additional prize, and I'm pretty sure it can do whatever it wants. In 1987, jurors gave an award to an out-of-competition film, Federico Fellini's "Intervista." The jury from 1997 chose to give a career honor to the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. In 2007, Gus Van Sant received a more conventional award for "Paranoid Park."
I predict that the jury uses this spot to make a statement on the changing nature of film exhibition—either by giving a prize to Jane Campion and David Lynch, two filmmakers who appeared here with their respective TV series, "Top of the Lake" and "Twin Peaks," or by finding a way to honor the theatrical experience. Cannes, for all its flaws, remains fervently devoted to superb theaters and projection.