After twelve days of screenings at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Jane Campion’s jury has opted to award the coveted Palme d’Or to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for his 196-minute opus ‘Winter Sleep’. Time will tell if their decision was the correct one; in the meantime, we asked our staff to reminisce about their favourite winners of years gone by.
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Tom Nixon, Senior Film Editor
Gene Hackman drags out a career-best, against-type performance as introverted audio surveillance expert Harry Caul, whose personal life is all locked doors and distancing mechanisms. Caul’s reluctant investment in the titular conversation he’s been hired to record is shaped and intensified by Pakula’s Watergate-era paranoia, Hitchcock’s suspense-soaked voyeurism and Schrader-esque Catholic guilt over his complicity in a previous tragedy. He begins to suspect malicious intentions of clients Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford, whose corporate tower block seems an omniscient mass of tinted windows and winding Vertigo staircases.
Microphones are cameras, peep-holes and sniper rifles, lines are blurred between observation and participation, Blow-Up (another worthy Palme recipient) looms large — “since when are you here to be entertained?” asks Caul of his bored, pervy co-worker. Caul’s process of clarifying his recordings is key, as sound editor Walter Murch layers a repetitious trail of oft-distorted verbal earworms over close-ups of spinning, whirring analog equipment, foreshadowing a history doomed to repeat itself. A mysterious fragment is gradually decoded and a dangerous narrative emerges, though coloured by our affiliations and hang-ups. The violent climax is witnessed but neither prevented nor interpreted correctly, and the bloody red past comes bubbling up out of the rabbit hole. An overly explicatory penultimate sequence is rescued by that closing shot of Caul, alone but never alone, wrenching sounds out of his saxophone to drown the screams of his victims-by-proxy, then tearing up his apartment in search of concealed bugs.
Though prematurely abandoned for the more lucrative Godfather sequel, The Conversation was nevertheless Francis Ford Coppola’s most personal project of the ‘Seventies. “I don’t know anything about human nature,” says Caul, but there’s no denying Coppola’s acute understanding of the uncomfortable truths lurking behind the eyes and ears of every serial moviegoer — himself very much included. It’s fitting that Murch was left largely responsible for the final cut, however, as his obsessive, foreboding sound design is the film’s foremost calling card, rendering David Shire’s cyclic, nervously tinkling piano score the stuff of legend.
Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
Chuck Williamson, Film Editor
Before tax troubles turned him into an unrepentant cash-grabber and one-stop meme machine, Nicolas Cage spent the early days of his career honing a cockeyed brand of “Western kabuki.” He did not “inhabit” his roles so much as use them as pretext for a shambolic, loose-limbed form of performance art. In his best performances, Cage squirmed free from the straightjacket of low-key naturalism and unleashed a thermonuclear assault of gonzo-bizarro acting tics: the twitchy physicality, unhinged line readings, volatile bursts of energy, and a bug-eyed, gnashed-teeth style of facial expressivity that would have even made Mack Sennett hop up from his chair and plead for a little moderation. This penchant toward Looney Tunes excess made him the ideal leading man for David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, a bizarre, pop-addled picaresque through the highways of hell. Case in point: the film’s opening sequence, a jarring moment of splattergore burlesque that capitalises on the deep reservoirs of rage and trigger-fingered lunacy lurking beneath his macho-cool exterior. The tousled pompadour. Dangling cigarette. Crazy eyed menace. Outstretched index finger. Vintage Cage.
When Wild at Heart was awarded the 1990 Palme d’Or, the entire Palais des Festivals famously erupted into a chorus of cheers and boos. Chief amongst the film’s detractors was Roger Ebert, who derided Lynch as a director “hiding behind sophomoric humor and the cop-out of ‘parody.’” This assessment is more than a little reductive and disingenuous. In Wild at Heart, Lynch crafts a loud and unapologetically vulgar portrait of his homeland as a surreal, southern-fried wasteland, a honky-tonk hellhole viewed through the prism of art-damaged Americana: pulp crime fiction, primetime soaps, Elvis Presley, and L. Frank Baum. But beyond the excessive brutality, and pop-culture pastiche, Lynch’s film remains a woozily romantic tale of two lovers — reckless and hopelessly naive — speeding through a rundown Emerald City like wounded sparrows flapping their wings against the ever-encroaching darkness. As with all things Lynch, it is tender and terrible in equal measure.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Jay Sizemore, Film Editor
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Pulp Fiction, mostly because I had no idea what to expect going into it. The film was perfectly marketed, with trailers that gave away nothing except for a vague notion of unique coolness and a long list of critical acclaims. More films these days could use this approach to marketing, rather than what we get now: a desperate attempt to lure in viewers by showing a condensed version of the entire film in two minutes.
A friend and I went to see it on the allure of its “coolness” value alone, not knowing that we were about to witness something that was unlike any movie we had ever experienced up to that point. I remember the chills as the closing credits started to roll. The dazed silence as we strode from the theatre back to the car. That feeling of having to process everything that I had just watched internally so my analytical side could decide whether I actually liked it or not. When you experience something completely new, you are truly free from the burden of conformist thinking. Before I put the car in reverse to pull out of the parking space and head home, I had made up my mind.
“That was fucking awesome,” I said to my friend.
“Yeah. It really was,” he responded.
With probably one of the best screenplays ever written, this film will remain one of my favourites until I die. Much like music, movies can be time machines that remind us of our younger selves. Every time I watch this movie, I rediscover that youthful earnestness and the passion I had—and continue to have—for the art of cinema. You never know when a movie is going to surprise you and completely baffle your imagination. There’s nothing better.
Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)
Christine Jin, Contributing Film Editor
Up until the midpoint of Secrets & Lies, where a young woman’s search for her birth mother culminates in a neurotic phone conversation and an awkwardly staged, tense reunion at an empty diner, Mike Leigh’s cozy coterie of miserable working-class characters try in vain to suppress agonising truths. A marriage’s happily robust façade starts cracking when the husband can’t cajole a smile out of his wife (as he does with his customers); a mother and daughter seem unable to sit together for a cup of tea without getting into a fight. Only with the advent of an outsider — the aforementioned long-lost daughter — does the family unleash their true feelings towards one another.
Often hailed as one of Leigh’s finest works, this domestic melodrama brought him and his leading thespian Brenda Blethyn the Palme d’Or and Best Actress Award at the 49th Cannes Film Festival. These prestigious awards may have proven the actress’ richly expressive and naturally sympathetic performance, as well as the filmmaker’s astuteness in his portrayals of the characters, but above all the film’s greatest asset is its glorious ensemble cast. Among the under-appreciated — by the Academy or otherwise — are Phyllis Logan and Claire Rushbrook as the fragile wife and the petulant daughter, respectively. And there’s Timothy Spall, of course; a dozen shots and images in the movie owe their indelibility to Spall’s turn as a reserved, tender and fatigued husband. Yesterday, Mr. Spall finally earned his much-deserved acting award for his depiction of a landscape painter at this year’s Cannes closing ceremony. After re-watching one of the best films of 1996, one naturally expects Leigh’s latest Cannes contender to have the same filmmaking prowess and standard of performance by Mr. Spall.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
Ghausia Rashid Salam, Articles Editor
The Pianist was the first film I ever saw about World War II and the Holocaust. I was about 13, and only had a vague understanding of the events of WW2 from what they taught us (admittedly, quite little) in school. To this day, the one scene that stands out in my mind’s eye is Adrien Brody walking down a deserted street, weeping with despair. I cried several times during that movie, which is why I don’t re-watch it: it’s simply too painful. My biggest reason for loving the movie is that it opened my eyes to the Holocaust; in a country where anti-Semitism is the norm and where people congratulate my German friend for being born in the country that “dealt” with Jews, it is not easy to be a person that differs from the herd.
At one point, however, it became difficult to like the movie. This is because I learned of Roman Polanski and the child he raped. How do you separate a person from their work? How do you watch their work without remembering that the same man who directed this film also raped a little girl? Perhaps we should consider the medium. In The Pianist, Polanski took on a personal subject, since he was a Holocaust survivor himself. But he wasn’t the only person involved in the movie and, if anything, it was Adrien Brody who gave such a moving performance. Of course, his work does not absolve him, nor should it give him impunity to commit such crimes. It is not always easy to separate the monster from the art he creates.
So does The Pianist deserve the Palme d’Or for touching upon a dark, tragic event in world history and successfully portraying its shattering effects? Yes, it does. It’s a beautiful movie that captures the senselessness of war, the destructive nature of humanity itself, and it was directed by a rapist. But the credit of making the movie a success belongs to Adrien Brody, who carried the film on his shoulders. His brilliant performance should not be neglected because of who the director is — or what crimes he has committed.
Listen to The Missing Slate’s Cannes filmcast here.