Triet’s Triumph: 2023 Cannes Awards

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

Immediately after Ruben Östlund’s jury presented the awards in Cannes this past Saturday, the stats started flying across social media. Some were silly but fun. For the first time in the twenty-two-year history of the Palm Dog, the winner—Messi, the border collie who plays Snoop in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall—appears in the film that won the Palme d’Or. Somewhat more significantly, for the fourth time in a row, Neon went to Cannes and picked up a film to distribute in North America that, a few days later, won the festival’s top prize. The winning streak: Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019), Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021), Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), and now, Anatomy of a Fall.

Triet is the third female winner of the Palme d’Or, and that’s the stat we can only hope signifies a fundamental change. Jane Campion was first with The Piano in 1993, and nearly three decades went by before Ducournau won hers. Overall, though, women directors fared well this year. Cinematographer Molly Manning Walker won the Un Certain Regard Prize for her directorial debut, How to Have Sex (more on the UCR winners below). Flóra Anna Buda won the Short Film Palme d’Or for 27, an animated portrait of a woman starting her life anew. Amanda Nell Eu won the Grand Prize at Critics’ Week for Tiger Stripes and Elena Martín Gimeno’s Creatura won the award for Best European Film at Directors’ Fortnight.

Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) presided over the jury that presented L’Œil d’Or, the Golden Eye Award for the best documentary at Cannes, to two films directed by women. Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian woman who lost two daughters to ISIS, and her two remaining daughters appear as themselves in Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters—but Hamrouni and her two missing daughters are also occasionally played by professional actors. “The resulting film is an enthralling hybrid that explores matriarchy, rebellion, and extremist religion’s poisonous misogyny,” writes Jay Weissberg at the Film Verdict. The Mother of All Lies, in which Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir delves into family secrets, also won the Best Director prize in the UCR competition.

Accepting the Palme d’Or, Triet sparked an uproar in France when she laid into Emmanuel Macron’s “neoliberal” administration for ignoring the massive, weeks-long protests against the president’s pension overhaul, which ultimately had to be enforced by decree. She then dedicated her win to “all young female and male directors and to those who today are unable to make films. We must make room for them, and give them the place I took fifteen years ago when I started, in a world that was a little less hostile, in which it was possible to make mistakes and start over.”

Triet was last in Cannes with her chaotic comedy Sybil (2019), and anyone looking to catch up with the oeuvre would do well to turn the overview Melissa Anderson wrote for 4Columns in 2020. Anatomy of a Fall is a “gripping, sharply intelligent psychological drama, which collects itself in fizzing arcs of strange electricity around a brilliant, edgy but elusive Sandra Hüller,” writes Jessica Kiang for Sight and Sound.

Hüller plays a German writer suspected of killing her French husband, and over the course of its “consistently riveting two-and-a-half-hour runtime,” the film becomes “a kind of emotional procedural, less concerned with cold facts than with multiple parties’ fluid, permeable ideas of the truth, and the ellipses between them,” writes Guy Lodge. Triet “has made multiple excellent films,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, “but this is a step above and beyond, visually presenting as unostentatious in ways that conceal the clarity and thoughtfulness of its craft.”

Grand and Jury Prizes

“Sandra Hüller’s agent’s phone must be blowing up right now,” quipped Boyd van Hoeij on Saturday. Before joining Triet on the main stage at the end of the awards ceremony, Hüller was beaming a triumphant smile at Jonathan Glazer, who directed her in The Zone of Interest, the winner of the Grand Prix. Triet is “a very free mind and a free woman, and I really, really admire her for that, from the depths of my heart,” Hüller tells Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. Glazer is “an extraordinary human, with such vulnerability and openness.” Taking the core idea from Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, Glazer maintains a strict focus on the obscenity of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife (Hüller), and their children carrying on with their sunny lives on the safe side of the wall separating their home from round-the-clock mass murder being committed in the camp.

Writing for Film Comment, Beatrice Loayza observes that “a central dilemma of Holocaust cinema pits the responsibility of bearing witness against the medium’s penchant for aestheticization—to paraphrase Serge Daney, what could be more revolting than a handsomely framed corpse? Glazer’s choice to withhold, rather than to depict, is a moral one, a refusal to make seductive that which can never be understood—and which should remain an unimaginable calamity. Instead, Glazer aligns the film with the perspective of those complicit, who are struggling, but desperately failing, to keep the demons at bay. If this psychological setup isn’t particularly original, the film’s queasy rhythms are undeniably effective, generating a bodily experience that insists on more than meets the eye.”

The Jury Prize went to Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves. “The Finnish legend returns,” writes Little White LiesDavid Jenkins, “his deadpan instincts enhanced more than undimmed, with a(nother) sweeping, Hollywood-inspired romance set among the disenchanted and the destitute.” Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is going to have to cut way down on his drinking if he hopes to get anywhere with Ansa (Alma Pöysti).

“As always,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “the director has a knack for choosing faces that belong inarguably in his world, their expressionless features revealing almost nothing and yet somehow we see a full range of their humanity.” Fallen Leaves “may be endowed with the spirit of a fable and the romantic sweep of a Sirkian melodrama,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “but its faith in our ability to find light in the darkness never feels the least bit false or naive.”

Director and First Feature

In 1993, the Caméra d’Or, the award presented to the best first feature, went to Vietnamese-born French director Trần Anh Hùng for The Scent of Green Papaya. This year it’s gone to another filmmaker from Vietnam, Thien An Pham, for Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell. In a series of meticulously choreographed long takes, the film tracks the journey of a young man and his five-year-old nephew from Saigon to a small town out in the country. “Whatever defects one may detect in Pham’s writing or aptitude with actors, they are outweighed by the bravura execution of his Bi Gan-esque mobility theater, which will remain the star of the show for the entire three hours,” writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker.

Trần, who won the Golden Lion in Venice for Cyclo (1995), has now won the award for Best Director in Cannes. Set in 1885, The Pot-au-feu, an adaptation of a 1924 novel by French epicure Marcel Rouff, stars Benoît Magimel as Dodin Bouffant, referred to in the film as the “Napoleon of the culinary arts,” and Juliette Binoche as Eugénie, the cook with whom he has been working—and in love—for the past twenty years.

Trần’s first feature since 2016’s Eternity is “a slab of outright gastronomic spectacle on the level of Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate, only more so,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety. “Conflict is minimal, surprises nil. Instead, The Pot-au-feu—titled for the classically rustic French dish of boiled meat and vegetables, which carries eventual narrative significance in this parade of fancier fare—holds its audience entirely on the pleasures of beauty, vicarious indulgence and, eventually, the human care inherent in haute cuisine, all to obviously mouthwatering but less expectedly moving effect . . . The food is what we gawk at; the mutual understanding behind it is what turns us on.”

Screenplay and Performances

The award for Best Screenplay went to Yuji Sakamoto for writing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster, the winner of this year’s Queer Palm. When an eleven-year-old begins acting strangely, his mother suspects that he’s being mistreated by a new teacher at school. The suspicion is complicated, though, when Sakamoto and Kore-eda tell the tale again from another angle—and then complicated even further when they revisit the same series of events a third time.

“This story about childhood, love, and misunderstanding begins under the sign of disaster and keeps reminding us how vulnerable our world is,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “That it features the most delicate of piano scores from the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, who reportedly submitted two new pieces and several previously recorded ones because he was too ill to compose a full soundtrack, merely adds to the film’s heartbreaking fragility . . . I’m not sure I’ve seen a better film about the indisputable (and increasingly relevant) fact that we never really know what someone else is going through.”

Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell finds that Merve Dizdar, who won the award for Best Actress for her performance as a teacher in a tiny Anatolian village in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses, “has the haunted quality of early Barbara Steele.” For Leonardo Goi, writing at the Film Stage, About Dry Grasses is “both a distillation of Ceylan’s recurrent tropes and a purification of his style, a film made of conversations that remain explosive even at their most forbidding, shivering with a sense of fluid emotions constantly at play.” In both the screenplay “and the mesmerizingly plausible four central performances, there’s a deep and forgiving understanding of human psychology at work,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin.

Koji Yakusho, who won Best Actor, delivers what Jonathan Romney, writing for Screen, calls “an introverted, immensely likable central performance” in Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days. Hirayama, “played by Yakusho with relatively few words but a bottomless well of feeling,” writes David Rooney, cleans the public toilets in Tokyo, a spectacularly varied assortment of architectural wonders. Rooney calls Perfect Days “a film of deceptive simplicity, observing the tiny details of a routine existence with such clarity, soulfulness and empathy that they build a cumulative emotional power almost without you noticing.”

Un Certain Regard

Writing for the Playlist, Rafaela Sales Ross introduces us to the three British teens partying hard at a Greek resort in Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex, the winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard program: “bubbly blabber Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), raunchy troublemaker Skye (Lara Peake), and sweet mum friend Em (Enva Lewis) . . . If the first half of How to Have Sex is tightly written as a teen comedy, its latter portion veers into the tenser, darker side of sexual inexperience. Tara, introduced as a walking bundle of energy, slowly sinks into the murky waters of discomfort, learning for the first time that the promised land of pleasure is oftentimes the favored harbor of ghouls. Newcomer McKenna-Bruce is extraordinary in the command of this shift, standing as the driving force of a film certain to act as a launchpad for her budding career.”

The Jury Prize went to Kamal Lazraq’s debut feature, Hounds, a thriller set in Casablanca. “Taking place over one long, increasingly harrowing twenty-four hours in which a father and son try to dispose of a dead body,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, “the movie sits somewhere between Bicycle Thieves, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and a more standardized crime flick, exploring contemporary Moroccan life through a bare-bones film noir carried by a cast of nonprofessional actors.”

For another film set in contemporary Casablanca, The Mother of All Lies, Best Director award-winner Asmae El Moudir and her father built a miniature model of their neighborhood to jog the memories of the family members she interviews. “The result is a sly, often playful but ultimately moving study of community, generational anguish, and atrocities covered up by the state that blends documentary technique with originality and polished storytelling skill,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter.

Belgian-Congolese rapper and visual artist Baloji won the New Voice Prize for his first feature, Omen, a collection of four intersecting stories involving accusations of witchcraft. At IndieWire, Arjun Sajip finds Omen to be “an intriguingly ambivalent reckoning with Baloji’s mother country, a genre-hopping, beautifully slippery exploration of Congolese belief systems and their relation to patriarchally inflicted traumas.”

Brazilian filmmakers João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora and the entire team behind The Buriti Flower won the Ensemble Prize. “As with their previous feature, The Dead and the Others (2018),” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “the duo works with Indigenous Krahô people to tell their own story, in their language, as participants both behind and in front of the camera. It recounts the Krahô’s modern history, with land stolen and hemmed in by colonizing farmers in the 1940s, and now encroached upon and invaded by politicians and poachers. The Buriti Flower has the surprising and organic shape of something made collectively with great sensitivity, allowing aspects to go unexplained, integrating documentary elements, reanimating stories from the past, and dramatizing the rearing of new generations.”

John C. Reilly’s jury presented a Freedom Prize to Goodbye Julia, the debut feature from Mohamed Kordofani and the first film from Sudan to screen at Cannes. “A gut-wrenching and emotionally rewarding tale of religious persecution compounded by entrenched racism, Goodbye Julia may be set in Sudan between 2005 and 2010 but feels deeply pertinent and, unfortunately, timeless,” writes Lisa Nesselson for Screen.

Distracted while driving, a woman from North Sudan accidentally runs into a child from the South, and after one thing has led to another, her husband kills the child’s father. “Goodbye Julia threads the tense politics of a divided nation into the detailed tapestry of a quiet domestic drama,” writes Lovia Gyarkye in the Hollywood Reporter. “Sudan’s film history includes the work of African film pioneer Gadalla Gubara and recent projects like Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees and Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die at Twenty. Kordofani’s film distinguishes itself from the contemporary pack as a narrative feature that attempts to wrestle with the secession and the discrimination faced by Southern Sudanese people.”

The winners of all these awards are, of course, just a sample of what Cannes had to offer this year. We can be sure that we’ll be hearing about other critical favorites, such as Víctor Erice’s Close Your Eyes, Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera, or Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka, in the coming months. Wrapping his festival coverage for Inside Hook, Mark Asch reminds his readers that Cannes “lasts the better part of two weeks in a bubble intense even by film festival standards, long enough for lore to develop and inside jokes to metastasize,” so “the next time you see a Cannes title and come away perplexed by the hype, remember that your expectations were set by a sleep-deprived pop-up society for whom such films are the entire culture.”

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