Break it down:
PALME D'OR: Entre Les Murs (The Class), directed by Laurent Cantet
As Dave Kehr points out, the first French film to take Cannes top prize in 21 years, and surely a less controversial pick than the last one, Pialat's Under the Sun of Satan. With such films as Time Out, Human Resources, and Heading South, all of which got some American distribution and were largely well-received by critics, Cantet has shown a knack for tackling socially relevant subject matter without coming off too didactic. This picture is an unusual fiction/reality hybrid: based on a book by Francois Begaudeau about his experiences as a teacher in a French equivalent of an inner city, it stars Begaudeau as himself and a cast of non-professionals as his charges. A comment by juror Marjane Satrapi sheds some light on the rationale for the prize: "There is almost nothing I believe in anymore. But if there is something I believe in, it is culture and education." Kent Jones, in the comments section of Dave's site, reveals himself to have been less impressed by the picture: "if you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to avoid a comparison with the fourth season of The Wire, which is not flattering to the Cantet...[it's not] a bad film, but it seemed like small potatoes compared with Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale or a Lucrecia Martel’s startling The Headless Woman."
As I noted in a post below, I missed Entre les Murs; I look forward to seeing it, but I'm with Kent on the Desplechin and look forward to a chance to see the Martel again, as my initial viewing of it took place under less-than-optimum circumstances...
GRAND PRIX: Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone
Speaking of The Wire...this multi-narrative, quasi-doc-style epic about the varied tendrils of the Comorra, Naples' ruling organized crime entity, could perhaps be profitably peddled Stateside as an Italian variant of the well-regarded series. The engrossing film, based on an excellent non-fiction book by Roberto Saviano, is thoroughly inexorable in its step-by-step portrayal of how mob activities are invariably tied to so-called "clean" capitalism. But its critique is vital, alive, and palpable, never drily didactic. And the picture's gritty realism masks an artfulness that keeps registering with you long after the film's over. A real breakout picture for Garrone, who's been toggling between arthouse and exploitation with his most recent films First Love and The Embalmer. Absolutely one to watch for; no U.S. distrib as of yet.
PRIX DE MISE EN SCENE: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for Three Monkeys
Turkish director Ceylan's new film was the subject of fevered Palme d'Or speculation before the festival even kicked off. A lot of critics, myself included, were a little disappointed with this follow-up to Climates, a tale of family guilt and sorrow that, beneath its surfaces, rather resembles Ordinary People without the therapist. Still, one would be hard-pressed to deny its conviction, the excellence of its performances, or its striking imagery. Hence, its director's prize. "I don't need awards, but my country does," Ceylan noted, and perhaps the jury sensed that as well. That said, I thought this time around, Desplechin, Martel, Eastwood, the Dardennes, and Soderbergh all brought better mise-en-scene to their respective pictures. The picture has been picked up for U.S. distribution, smartly, I believe, by New Yorker Films.
PRIX DE SCENARIO: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, for Le Silence de Lorna
I'm happy to see that what may turn out to be the Dardenne's most conventionally accessible film, a tale of an Albanian illegal in Belgium whose conscience emerges as she's drawn in to a murder plot, get some recognition, but this is a rather peculiar award to bestow upon a film in which no part of the behind-the-camera process is less equal than another, and the on-screen acting is so extraordinary. I doubt the brothers are complaining, though, except maybe on behalf of their spectacular cast.
No U.S. distributor yet. Sony Pictures Classics has the U.S. distribution rights.
BEST ACTOR: Benicio del Toro for Che
Not unexpected—it's a protean portrayal, even if del Toro can't entirely disguise that, at the start, he's a good ten years too old for the role. His Cannes acceptance speech, dedicated to The Man himself, will surely prove good red meat to the film's detractors, who haven't been laying in wait (e.g., endeavoring to actually see it) to pounce. As massively commited and good as del Toro is, I was still more impressed by Amalric's mad black sheep in Desplechin's Un Conte de Noel. Che, as has been widely noted, still has no U.S. distrib.
BEST ACTRESS: Sandra Corveloni for Linha de Passe
This, on the other hand, was quite a surprise for several reasons. I'm not sure if anyone's pointed this out yet, but the Cannes Competition this year fairly teemed with superb female roles, superbly acted. Martina Gusman as a prison inmate and mother in Leonera; Deneuve's matriarch in Un Conte de Noel; Arta Dobroshi as the illegal immigrant in the Dardenne's Le Silence de Lorna; and, yes, some would argue, Angelina Jolie's crusading mom in Eastwood's Changeling. The award to Corveloni comes as a surprise not so much because she's a first-timer (at least that's what's claimed; the imdb, on the other hand, has her appearing in a Brazilian film from 1996) but because critical notices praised the Walter Salles/Daniela Thomas film's ensemble cast but rarely singled any of its members, least of all Corveloni...at least as far as I've been able to glean. This is another picture I missed, and has no U.S. distributor yet, although given Salles' name value that won't be the case for long.
PRIX DE JURY: Il Divo, by Paolo Sorrentino
In case you're wondering, the above-cited Grand Prix is a fancy name for second place, and the Prix de Jury is...a prize the Jury gives to something just because they feel like it, I think. This was another surprise, and kind of a pleasant one, as I, ungenerous of spirit as I am, couldn't imagine anyone who wasn't intimately acquainted with the incredibly labyrinthian politics of post-WWII Italy could possibly follow it, let alone enjoy it. I mean, I know some stuff about mobbed-up financier Michele Sindona and "suicided" banker Roberto Calvi from Nick Tosches book Power on Earth, and some other stuff about the Red Army and Christian Democrats and all that from having once dated a woman whose family actually counted the late Aldo Moro as a friend, and I had a terrible time keeping up with this satirical account of the life of remarkably lucky (and astonishingly implicated!) Italian pol Giulio Andreotti. That said, while Il Divo isn't one tenth as insufferable as Sorrentino's A Friend of the Family, a real low point of my 2007 Cannes experience, its' still, to my taste, far too tricked-up and ostentatious to be really effective or biting. Without having gotten this prize, this would have zero shot at U.S. distribution. With the prize, it's a definite maybe.
In other prizes, the Camera d'Or, the award for best first film, went to Hunger, the cinema debut of the conceptual artist who—as a conceptual artist will—calls himself Steve McQueen. This was maybe the only prize that seemed a foregone conclusion. (I missed the film, on a scheduling gaffe, and not, as others might try to tell you, because I claimed that I'd spent enough time in past years at Rocky Sullivan's to fulfill whatever karmic debt I might have to Bobby Sands.) A special mention was given to Russian first-timer Valeria Gai Guermanica's Vse Umrut a Ja Ostanus, which screened in the Critic's Week—which is programmed by critics, but seemingly attended by very few. "Thanks for Stopping By" awards, officially known as the "Prix de 61st Festival de Cannes," were awarded to Catherine Deneuve, who accepted, and Clint Eastwood, who had already left town.