'Winter Sleep' Win Tops Dreamy Cannes Film Festival

This year's festival lived up to expectations, with 'The Kindergarten Teacher' and 'Gett' the pick of the Israeli pics.

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Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Palme d'Or award winner for his film "Winter Sleep", next to director Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman, 67th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes May 24, 2014.
Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Palme d'Or award winner for his film "Winter Sleep", next to director Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman, 67th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes May 24, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Obviously, I did not see all the films screened at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, which ended Sunday night. That would have been impossible even for the fastest sprinters, who are capable of running from theater to theater in the Mediterranean coastal city where the festival takes place, an area which actually is not all that large.

In any case, to judge by the films I saw, I can say that this year’s Cannes Festival was quite reasonable indeed. There have been years in which the list of contenders for the prestigious Palme d’Or – which arouses most of the interest at Cannes – was filled with entries by renowned directors, but each one was a disappointment. Not this year.

While it is true that I prefer the films by English director Mike Leigh that deal with present-day Britain, his newest effort, “Mr. Turner,” a period biography about the renowned British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775 –1851), was interesting and often impressive. Also, while Canadian director Atom Egoyan has directed better films than his latest one, “The Captive,” even this flawed work showed Egoyan’s abundant talent.

The jury in the Palme d’Or competition, headed by director Jane Campion of New Zealand, did its work well. When I saw “Winter Sleep,” the new movie by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, I hoped – and in fact even expressed that hope in my reports from the festival – that it would finally bring a Palme d’Or to Ceylan, one of the greatest film directors at work today.

In 2002, Ceylan's “Distant” won the Grand Jury Prize, the second-most important prize at Cannes. In 2008, his “Three Monkeys” won the best director award, and in 2011 Ceylan won the Grand Jury Prize for “One Upon a Time in Anatolia.” But the Palme d’Or eluded him – until this year.

“Winter Sleep,” about three hours and 15 minutes long, tells the story of a former actor who runs a small hotel in Anatolia, where he lives with his young wife and divorced sister. Ceylan’s films have grown longer and deeper over the years, but “Winter Sleep” is particularly courageous. When the director said “Style does not interest me” in a conversation we had at the festival, it was one of the most surprising statements I had ever heard from an important director.

The jury's choices in the competition indeed reflected the best and most interesting of the competing films. “Foxcatcher,” the third movie by the American director Bennett Miller (his previous works are “Moneyball” and “Capote”), won the award for best director. “Leviathan,” the fourth film by the Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Return” and “Elena”), won him and the co-author of the screenplay, Oleg Negin, the award for best screenplay. Both films criticize the governments in their countries, each in its own way.

"Foxcatcher," which served to bolster the feeling that Miller is one of the most prominent directors in America today, is based – like his previous films – on a murder case that shook America in the 1980s. For his part, Zvyagintsev’s film, which takes place in a small, dying fishing town in northern Russia, and shows arid and beautiful landscapes, uses sharp satire to attack the government’s corruption and its apathy toward the citizens’ suffering.

Godard in 3-D

A particularly interesting category this year was that of the Jury Prize, which was given to films by two directors born 58 years apart. One was “Mommy,” the fifth film by 25-year-old Canadian-French director Xavier Dolan, which tells the story of the relationship between a mother and her troubled and violent teenage son, and the help they receive from a mysterious neighbor. The other was “Adieu au langage,” the first 3-D film by veteran 83-year-old French director Jean-Luc Godard.

Awarding the prize to both these films jointly was justified since both directors, despite their difference in style, examine the boundaries of cinematic expression. Godard, who has been giving us sleepless nights since “Breathless” (1960), and has had his finger on the nerve center of cinematic art ever since, probes the possibilities and limitations of 3-D in his latest work, the likes of which we have never seen.

For his part, Dolan changes the size of the frame several times in his film. The American director D.W. Griffith played similar tricks during his early days in cinema in the early 20th century, but almost no one else has done so since. Dolan’s film proves how effective that trick can be used in a controlled, non-arbitrary manner.

It was only to be expected that Britain's Timothy Spall would win the Best Actor award for his portrayal of J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's film on the renowned painter. Spall’s performance was the most ostentatious, even if there were other good performances at the competition by actors such as Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher,” which deserved more notice. We will be hearing more about them at the Academy Awards.

Cannes also tries to give an award to every film, except for unusual cases, and awarding the Best Director prize to Bennett Miller paved the way for Spall to win the Best Actor (I predict that he, together with Leigh’s film, will be nominated for Oscars, definitely in the cinematography and costumes categories).

The Best Actress award, on the other hand, was a more complicated affair. The competition contained several impressive performances by women, such as Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Hilary Swank in “The Homesman,” directed by Tommy Lee Jones (both these excellent films left the competition empty-handed); and Anne Dorval, whose performance in Dolan’s movie was particularly impressive.

Ultimately, the judges chose to award the prize to Julianne Moore, who portrays an aging movie star with her characteristic skill, in a wild film by Canadian director David Cronenberg called “Maps to the Stars.” This movie combines a grotesque family tragedy with anti-Hollywood satire.

The family, parent-child relationships and the suffering of children were – as almost every year – main themes in many of the films featured at Cannes. Relationships in the family were depicted mostly as emotionally charged and problematic. Some films, such as “The Lovely Girl” by Keren Yedaya, screened as part of the festival’s “Un Certain Regard” section for original and different works, dealt directly with, or hinted at, the issue of incest.

So, how were the five Israeli full-length features that were screened at Cannes this year? The best was “The Kindergarten Teacher” by Nadav Lapid, at the center of whose surprising story is a five-year-old boy. I was also impressed by “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, which tells the story of an Israeli woman trying to win a Jewish writ of divorce from her recalcitrant husband, and by “Next to Her,” directed by Asaf Korman, which tells of a young woman who devotes her life to caring for her sister, who suffers from severe developmental problems.

The festival had some failures as well, such as the choice of Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco” as the festival opener (“Saint Laurent,” the biography of Yves Saint Laurent directed by Bertrand Bonello, did not make a strong impression on the judges or the critics either). There was also “The Search,” the new film by Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), which many, including myself, saw as the worst entry in the competition.

But if I had a single strong feeling during the festival, it was that cinema – even when it is at its best and depicts unstable individual, social and political realities – does not succeed in truly depicting the dangerously unstable situation of our world, all four corners of it. This is cinema today. But even if it lags a step behind reality, it is still a witness to it.

Actress Uma Thurman and actor Timothy Spall, Best Actor award winner for his role in the film "Mr. Turner", reacts as they pose on stage during the closing ceremony of the 67th Cannes Film Festival.Credit: Reuters
US director Bennett Miller poses with the Best Director Prize after the closing ceremony of the 67th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.Credit: Reuters
Israeli model Bar Refaeli arrives for amfAR's Cinema Against AIDS 2014 event during the 67th Cannes Film Festival.Credit: Reuters