Handicapping the Palme d'Or

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The Cannes Film Festival is like an Academy Award year, or a marathon political campaign, compressed into 12 days. In the first 11 days the jury (as well as the critics) sees the movies in competition for the Palme d'Or; and on the 12th evening, it announces the winners. Tomorrow is Cannes' election night, or Oscar Night; the 40 min. ceremony, with no production numbers or concession speeches, will be held in the Palais, and broadcast across Europe.

With the competition entries ending today, that gives festivalgoers a chance to predict the winners in the following categories: Palme d'Or (the top film), Grand Jury Prize (second place), Jury Prize (third place), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director (a consolation prize that is usually different from the Palme d'Or winner) and maybe a few more. This being a festival whose number is divisible by five, there'll be a "60th Festival" award for yet another film. In other words, there are up to 10 prizes given out for the 21 films selected for the competition. Theoretically, if you're invited to the Cannes party, you have a nearly 50% chance of coming home a winner.

Who will win? Frankly, even Cannes' veteran critics have no idea. Unlike the Oscars, this competition isn't preceded by other awards contests (the Golden Globes or Directors Guild or Screen Actors Guild votings), so there's no knowledgeable morning line. Further, the electors —the Cannes Jury —change membership 100% every year, so you can't go by past winners. Finally, it doesn't help much to imagine which of the competing films the jury president would like best. In 2002, when David Lynch was president, the winning film was Roman Polanski's very traditional The Pianist. Last year, ultra-hip auteur Wong Kar Wai gave the Palme d'Or to Ken Loach's political epic The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Go figure? You can't.

Still, over the fortnight certain favorites have emerged among the critics. Few would be surprised if awards went to the Coen brothers' crime drama No Country for Old Men or the Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Either Josh Brolin or Javier Bardem, the hero and villain of No Country, would be a fine choice for Best Actor. Jeon Do-yeon, the addled widow in the Korean Secret Sunshine, and Asia Argento, in An Old Mistress, give just the sort of passionate, showy performances that win Best Actress awards. And there are other films, esteemed by the critics, that might also appeal to the Jury. One is The Edge of Heaven, by the German-born Turkish director Fatih Akim. Here are notes on two other popular contenders:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

When Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke at the age of 42, he was rendered totally immobile except for his left eyelid. His condition, "locked-in syndrome," left his memory and sharp wit unimpeded, but Bauby had no way to communicate, and felt like a man in a diving bell, the captive of his enclosure, instead of a butterfly, with the blessed freedom of movement. He eventually learned to "talk" by the tortuously slow process of listening to his therapist run through the alphabet and blinking when she spoke the right letter.

Johnny Depp was originally to play Bauby, but Pirates of the Caribbean came along to monopolize his time. So director Julian Schnabel, whose previous films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, were studies of artists isolated from their surroundings, had the sensible idea to make this story —of a Frenchman and his French medical angels —in French, with Mathieu Amalric as Bauby (or, as he is called in the film, Jean Do). The result is an affecting, imaginatively told parable of human triumph over excruciating obstacles: instead of My Left Foot, this is My Left Eye.

The film opens inside Bauby's head, going in and out of focus like his consciousness; we get the same blurry vision, varying sound levels and blinking camera. Bauby feels the natural anger and humiliation; on the voiceover narration he observes, "I'm 42 years old and I'm being washed like a big baby." In a hand mirror he catches sight of himself and his drooping mouth: "I look like I came out of formaldehyde." But Bauby is a fighter, who has the best (and most gorgeous) trainers to help him connect and communicate with the world he was once so vigorous a part of. Eventually, one blink at a time, he is able to "dictate" his autobiography, which was published just a few days before his death.

Schnabel uses his painterly sense to illuminate the story without losing its heart. Bauby's wife, his mistress and his children — this is, after all, a French film — accommodate themselves to his infirmity, are as loving and gracious as everyone else on this rescue mission; he has drool from his mouth shyly wiped by his young son. He has a moving reunion with an old friend, Pierre Roussin, to whom he had given up a seat on a plane that was hijacked; Roussin, who was held hostage in Beirut for four years, advises Bauby, "Hold fast to the human inside you, and you will survive." The most poignant scenes are between Bauby and his father (Max Von Sydow). One flashback shows Bauby gently shaving his father; later, the father phones Bauby's hospital room, and breaks down as he speaks —a heartbreaking moment of love and helplessness.

Some of the French critics derided the film; perhaps they were affronted that an American dared to poach on French turf. The audience response, though, was rapturous. Will the Jury be as enthusiastic? As we said, there are pointers to be taken from past Cannes awards. But do note that the film's screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, also wrote another true-life story of egregious suffering and improbable triumph: the Palme d'Or winner The Pianist.

Silent Light

Carlos Reygadas' name is rarely mentioned when journalists write about the new surge of Mexican cinema; they usually cite the three amigos: Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro. Yet Reygadas, 36, has made the biggest noise at international film festivals and among the more intellectual critics. His Japon and Battle in Heaven won praise for their filmmaking rigor, caustic view of Mexico's social ills and often frank take on sex. With his competition film Stellet Licht (Silent Light), Reygadas shocks again: this drama of a Mennonite community in northern Mexico contains no explicit hanky-panky. In its way the film is true to the severe, austere code of the Mennonites. Yet it is shot with such care and creativity, each scene has a visual, emotional luster.

The plot is simple: Johan (Cornelio Wall) — husband, father of six, devout believer —falls in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Can he end the affair? If not, what will the reverberations be on his family, his community, his beliefs? Reygadas dramatizes this with small, telling gestures in long-take shots of the countryside, which places the land's natural beauty against the internal conflicts of the three main participants.

Reygadas sets Silent Light's agenda in the first moments. The film opens with a time-lapse shot of night sky, stars, dawn slowly breaking, finally full daylight, as the  sound track comes alive with loud crickets, braying, mooing and breathy, muffled screams. Brilliant sunshine bathes the family's kitchen as they take morning prayer in a silence broken only by the loud ticking of the clock. Esther raises her eyes, Johan says, "Amen," and the children dive wordlessly into their cereal. After the meal, Esther leaves to shepherd the kids on errands, returning briefly to tell Johan to take some time for himself this morning. Alone, he weeps uncontrollably.

All this is not mere attention to visual and behavioral detail; it is a consummate film artist's weaving of a world and its inhabitants. Reygadas' genius is to sanctify each moment —the milking of cows and harvesting of grain, the children being washed in a stream, a sweetly illicit kiss in the woods —so that, when melodrama intrudes, it will have the power of inevitable tragedy.

The style that predominates in current high-art festival films (ones, by the way, that rarely get much exposure in U.S. movie houses) is minimalist. Based on the works of early masters like Carl-Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, it follows certain rules, as restrictive as any Mennonite edicts: pare movie technique down to its essentials; show characters behaving, however mutely, rather than acting; make the viewer work for their epiphanies. This style has been responsible for many small, lugubrious films and —from directors who know how to make more or less —a few masterpieces. Silent Light is one of them.