Handicapping the Palme d’Or

Posted by Robert Koehler on 5.9.2012


Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux

There’s a reason why people love the Viennale, that cinema feast in Vienna in the fall: No competition, no awards, just films, filmmakers and their audiences. Its natural, necessary opposite is undeniably Cannes: All about the competition, with the side parlor game of predicting what film will win, what will surprise, what will tank. If Viennale is an exposition, Cannes isn’t unlike the Monaco Grand Prix just a few bends of the coastline away—a race, with laurels to the victor.

So, submitting to the Cannes game, what film could win this year? Let’s work by process of elimination, taking into account the past sixteen years, an ample time period to parse trends and which also happens to include films by some directors in this year’s competition.

First, the history of the Palme d’Or has few repeat winners: Only Shohei Imamura (for The Eel in 1997) and the Dardenne brothers (for The Son in 2005) have had repeaters during our period, and even if one were to calculate an eight-year gap in a cycle, 2012 would still be likely too soon for another repeater. So odds are seriously stacked against the following films and filmmakers in the competition: Michael Haneke and Love; Abbas Kiarostami and Like Someone in Love; Ken Loach and The Angels’ Share; and Cristian Mungiu and Beyond the Hills.

Second, Palme winners are rarely first-timers, though not as infrequently as repeaters: from 1999 to 2008, there were three competition rookies, suggesting that contemporary juries tend to be open to the possibility of picking younger over older, established directors. Thus, the Dardenne brothers (again!) won in ’99 for Rosetta, while Laurent Cantet (The Class) and Mungiu (Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days) won successively in 2007 and 2008. So while there’s a slightly better chance for the following to grab the Palme this year, they will all be longshot bets in Vegas: Wes Anderson and opening film Moonrise Kingdom; Lee Daniels and The Paperboy; Andrew Dominik and Killing Them Softly; John Hillcoat and Lawless; Yousry Nasrallah and After the Battle; Jeff Nichols and Mud.


David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis

This leaves twelve films with a better than decent shot. A closer look though, again based on historic trends, suggests an even slimmer contest. The overwhelming pattern among recent Palme d’Or victors is to have been in the competition at least twice, and to have won one or more runner-up awards. This has applied, for instance, in this year’s field to Kiarostami, Loach and Haneke. Merely being in the running once before may not be enough, which drops Im Sang-soo and Taste of Money; Leos Carax and Holy Motors; Sergei Loznitsa and In the Fog; and Ulrich Seidl and Paradies: Liebe down a few notches on the tote board.

OK, eight left. Again, following our trend line, we can reduce the chances for directors who have been in the competition more than once, but who have been winless on awards night. This would include Walter Salles and On the Road and possibly Hong Sang-soo for In Another Country, although Hong’s Un Certain Regard win in 2010 for Hahaha hoists him a bit more prominently.

Of the remaining six, Matteo Garrone impresses for having won the Grand Jury Prize in 2008 for his sole competition film, Gomorrah, while Thomas Vinterberg might be seen as a darker horse given that his Jury Prize for 1999’s The Celebration came over a decade ago.

This leaves four possibilities involving filmmakers who have staked out a strong record either as past sub-Palme prizewinners or steady competition regulars who can easily be perceived that their time has come. Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone) has a solid track record: Winning the Grand Jury nod for A Prophet in 2009 and best screenplay in his only previous competition entry, 1996’s A Self-Made Hero. The formidable Carlos Reygadas has spent his entire feature career at Cannes, starting with a Camera d’Or for Japon in 2002, followed by Battle in Heaven and then Silent Light, the Jury Prize winner in 2007. David Cronenberg has been up for the Palme three times (including for A History of Violence and Spider), and won the Jury Special Prize for Crash in 1996. Finally, the grand old man himself, Alain Resnais (Nope! Never won!) tops Cronenberg with four Palme nominations, starting with Hiroshima, Mon Amour in 1959, followed by Stavisky (1974), a Grand Jury Prize for Mon Oncle d’Amerique in 1980 and an honorary special prize for Wild Grass in 2009.


Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone

Will a jury led by Nanni Moretti pull for history and lean toward Resnais, whose Wild Grass indicated a filmmaker still full of terrific imaginative energy? Or perhaps Audiard, seemingly inching closer and closer to the winner’s circle after the widely embraced A Prophet?

Hold on. Guess what? The dirty little fact of France’s grandest annual cinema event is that the Palme rarely goes to a French director, which was why Cantet’s win for The Class ranks as an extreme outlier victory.

This leaves it to a possible contest between Cronenberg, adapting Don DeLillo’s wild Manhattan novel and Reygadas, who has reportedly produced a highly personal work that oozes rumor, risk and curiosity. Given Cannes juries’ recent embrace of unconventional films such as Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a certain momentum may go toward the likelier less conventional Reygadas film. English-language films, however, have fared extremely well over the past sixteen years (nearly 30% of the winners in that period), so perhaps Cronenberg. Here’s the tiebreaker: Given the historic neglect of Latin American cinema in the competition (the last Latin American winner, Anselmo Duarte’s The Payer of Promises, was 40 years ago, the definition of “overdue”), Reygadas is likeliest for the Palme.

Which could mean a lot of writers and editors checking their spelling of Post Tenebras Lux.

For more coverage of the Cannes Film Festival, stay tuned to filmlinc.com/cannes as well as Film Society's Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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