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Cannes Dispatch – Will Win / Should Win

Despite initial reservations about a selection short on big names and a rather rocky start last week with some minor let-down’s, a strong midsection and several late-breaking hits confirmed the 71st Cannes Film Festival as one of the stronger editions in recent memory. It’s going to be a real nail-biter to see who gets to take home the Palme tomorrow night.

The latest serious awards contender to emerge from the competition lineup is Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s gripping, devastating survival drama CAPERNAUM. Its protagonist Zain (Zain Alrafeea), a scrawny, paperless child identified to be around 12 years old but looking younger, is serving a five-year sentence in prison and, even more sensationally, suing his parents in court for having given birth to him. As the film proceeds to show us what Zain has lived through – first at home with his abusive parents, then with the illegal Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shifera) and her toddler off of next to nothing, followed by a period of just boy and baby on the mean streets of Lebanon – the crime for which he’s being imprisoned and the accusations he’s raising against his parents also find their bleak, heartbreaking context.

Labaki’s direction is both naturalistic and urgent in tone, placing you in the dire confines the characters live within, feeling their breathless, overpowering despair. She tells this incredible story with such deep compassion you can’t help but be moved, even when the scenario veers towards sentimentality in certain parts. Alrafeea is nothing short of a marvel, his tiny frame a ball of staggering energy ready to go off at anytime and his face a source of endless expressivity. The way he looks at the adults around him, people who are supposed to know better but only teach him lies and abuse – his unwavering gaze full of bitter wisdom, indignation and hurt – is enough to annihilate the most cynical of hearts. If there’s any justice, this little gentleman would be crowned best actor of the festival.

This may not come to pass given French director Stéphane Brizé’s social drama AT WAR and Italian director Matteo Garrone’s revenge thriller DOGMAN, each built around a prominent lead male performance. The former details a strike action initiated by a group of factory workers whose livelihood is on the line when the company they work for decides to shut down their plant. Vincent Lindon, who won the Cannes best actor prize three years ago for another socially conscious drama directed by Brizé, THE MEASURE OF A MAN, does what he does best again and plays a charismatic everyman with tremendous conviction. The film itself, while hardly original in construction or surprising in execution, is well told and carries a message of great relevance. Could conceivably be a winner itself. DOGMAN revolves around a diminutive, naturally awkward man called Marcello who runs a pet shop in a decrepit, scary-looking part of Italy. After years being pushed around by his gangster friend Simone, Marcello finally cooks up an appropriately animalistic plan to get even. The film bears Garrone’s signature mix of macabre humor and cold violence, but never quite finds a creative way to channel all that style. Marcello Fonte’s creepily affecting turn as the titular Dogman, though, is undeniable.

After this brief catch-up, it’s time for me to go out on a limb again and share which films I consider most likely to go home as Cannes winners.

Palme d’Or
Should win: BURNING

Having seen all 21 films in competition, I believe the following have a legitimate shot at the Palme:


Excellent films all. COLD WAR would be a pretty safe choice. It’s a visual and aural feast with an ill-fated romance at it core and observations on questions of identity for added weight. If the jury goes for something more emphatically emotional, CAPERNAUM or SHOPLIFTERS could win out. As for my two personal favorites, BURNING and HAPPY AS LAZZARO, I can’t quite imagine either leaving Cannes without some major hardware. Taking into account the female-led jury and the unmistakable zeitgeist for another female director to win the Palme (Jane Campion’s THE PIANO is still the sole record holder), I would give LAZZARO the edge.

My no-guts-no-glory pick would be Kazakhstan director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s bleak, hyper-realist motherhood/immigration drama AYKO. It’s an intimate portrayal of extreme hardship that’s modest in scale compared to other competition entries. But who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what would ultimately help it stand out. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that, as much as we’d like to think we know about the taste of these famous filmmakers/actors on the jury, there’s simply no knowing how they tick.

Grand Prix

Really going out on a limb here but having the top two prizes awarded to female filmmakers would evidently be making an unprecedented statement and may prove an irresistible gesture. It must also be stressed that, with these two particular films, it would be fully justified. (If the love is further spread to GIRLS OF THE SUN, though, that would be another story.)

Prix du Jury
Will win: COLD WAR

This is also anyone’s guess. The shortlist of five/six above still applies. ASH IS PUREST WHITE, AT WAR and BLACKKKLANSMAN are possible threats.

Best Actor
Will win: Marcello Fonte (DOGMAN)
Should win: Zain Alrafeea (CAPERNAUM)

As mentioned earlier, my pick for best actor is the incredible Alrafeea and I do believe he has a serious shot at winning. But since I think CAPERNAUM is going to end up with a major prize, a second award here would be precluded under Cannes rules. For that reason, this could be Fonte’s to lose. His competition comes mainly in the form of Vincent Lindon (AT WAR), Tomasz Kot (COLD WAR), Ah-in Yoo (BURNING) and perhaps Andrew Garfield (UNDER THE SILVER LAKE).

Best Actress
Will win: Samal Yeslyamova (AYKA)
Should win: Joanna Kulig (COLD WAR)

Literally every single person in Cannes wants Tao Zhao (ASH IS PUREST WHITE) to win this, and she’s the safest bet too. No matter what one thinks about the film, there’s no denying that she nailed the part. On top of that, she has been to the festival with husband/collaborator Zhangke Jia many times and if there is such a thing as overdue status in Cannes, she could probably claim it for her numerous acclaimed performances.

That said, I just can’t shake the suspicion that an actress-heavy jury would go for a less obvious pick here. If that hunch pans out – which would be quite a surprise indeed – we could be looking at an unknown actress who also carries her movie start to finish with a raw, arguably even more exposed performance taking the prize.

Other possibilities include Jong-seo Jeon (BURNING), Sakura Andô (SHOPLIFTERS) and Golshifteh Farahani (GIRLS OF THE SUN).

Best Director
Will win: Chang-dong Lee (BURNING)
Should win: Chang-dong Lee (BURNING)

Lee has to win something and this feels like a good fit. If, on the other hand, either Alice Rohrwacher or Nadine Labaki triumphs here, the Palme is likely going to Korea this year.

NGNG pick: Jean-Luc Godard (THE IMAGE BOOK), although ugh.

Best Screenplay

This award often goes to a film the jury obviously likes but for whatever reason can’t find a spot for it in the top categories. Besides Spike Lee’s blisteringly comical words in BLACKKKLANSMAN, Jia’s ASH IS PUREST WHITE and maaaybe Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s THE WILD PEAR TREE are potential spoilers.

The winners of the 71st Cannes Film Festival will be announced at the awards ceremony tomorrow, May 19, at 7:15 PM (CET).