Cannes, France -- Sometimes the competition is actually competitive. No one disputes that the official section at the 60th Cannes Film Festival has been the strongest in recent memory.
The heavy favorites are the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men; Julian Schnabel's surprisingly restrained and bizarrely chic French-language adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's harrowing post-stroke memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's connect-the-dots we-are-the-world melodrama The Edge of Heaven. The long shots are David Fincher's Zodiac, the universally admired Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and, heavily promoted by key French opinionistes, South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's too-sprawling drama of faith found and lost, Secret Sunshine.
This report, however, is being filed while the jury, headed by Stephen Frears, is still deliberating. With the exception of 4 Months, I'd be more inclined to grant these contenders a Pas Mal than a Palm d'Or. And so, rather than second-guess the winners, I herewith enthusiastically offer my own personal slate.
The Palm (Revolving) d'Or to Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park. Van Sant's Elephant won first prize at Cannes in 2003. Paranoid Park, which covers similar territory, is in every way a superior piece of filmmaking. A Portland high-school kid with the clear, grave gaze and rosebud lips of a Renaissance princeling (albeit one found by Van Sant on MySpace) may or may not have been involved in the death of a railroad security employee. While Schnabel's Diving Bell appropriates Stan Brakhage-style flash frames and superimpositions to evoke its protagonist's paralyzed consciousness, Van Sant seems close to inventing his own film language. Paranoid Park is fluidly shot (by the great Chris Doyle) and suavely jagged in its editing, with a layered sound design that effortlessly integrates Nino Rota, Beethoven, and a hobo ballad on riding the rails. All in all, this was the most sustained example of pure cinema in this year's competition -- a movie of wonderful lucidity that makes confusion tangible.
The Best Director Whose Name I Can't Yet Pronounce to Cristian Mungiu, for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The competition was rife with thrillers and crime films; none had the constant tension of this highly intelligent and discomfitingly visceral, out-of-nowhere tale of two girls in trouble, discussed in these pages last week -- and sure to be again.
The Best Director Whose Name I've Almost Learned to Spell to Carlos Reygadas, for Silent Light. A more impressive stunt artist than those celebrated in Quentin Tarantino's expanded-by-a-lap-dance-for-Cannes Death Proof, the admirably unpredictable Reygadas followed up the calculated shocks of his 2005 black comedy, Battle in Heaven, by making the world's first talking picture in the medieval German Plautdietsch dialect. Even more than the Mexican director's previous films, Silent Light is a behavioral experiment -- set in Northern Mexico's Mennonite community and cast almost entirely with Mennonite non-actors.
Everything is monumentally deliberate, from the human interactions to the stolidly bucolic representation of Mennonite domesticity to the extraordinary, wide-screen landscape shots that bracket the action. Oscillating between the sacred and profane, this elemental tale of love and betrayal is part ethnographic documentary and part 16th-century psychodrama with an obvious debt to Carl Theodore Dreyer. Was Reygadas looking for the appropriate environment for a Dreyer remake -- or did Dreyer's Ordet present the most "natural" scenario for a Mennonite passion play?
The Inevitable 60th Anniversary (or Bonus Fourth Place) Prize to Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra. All hail Cannes for putting the late Susan Sontag's two favorite filmmakers -- Alexander Sokurov and Bela Tarr -- in competition. Tarr's stunning if lugubrious "thriller" The Man From London was an honorable failure, as well as a shoo-in for the Palm d'ormez-vous. Sokurov more than hit his mark. Here's a filmmaker whose immaculate images never falter, but whose films are often only as substantial as their concept. With Alexandra, the premise is impressively surreal: A straight-talking babushka (opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya) takes a solo trip to visit her grandson's unit in Chechnya. Grandma wears combat boots and Russia weeps.
The Prize of Uncertain Regard for the Best Film Bounced from Competition to Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon. Where Schnabel' s Diving Bell, Michael Moore's Sicko , and Marjane Satrapi's animated adaptation of her graphic novel Persepolis each in its way celebrates France, Hou made a French-language film that deranges a French film classic, deglamorizes a popular French actress, and even defamiliarizes the idea of France itself.
The Best Actor (to Appear in Three Movies) Award to Asia Argento. Practically a genre unto herself -- imbuing everything with eau de grindhouse -- Argento is a force of nature. As the eponymous old mistress in Catherine Breillat's highly entertaining adaptation of the 19th-century novel Une vieille maitresse, her character is described as "a capricious flamenca who can outstare the sun. "
As Breillat uses Argento's frank and spontaneous carnality to creatively disrupt her costume drama's gentility, the actress's sexual bravado and eccentric line readings enliven both the meta trash of Olivier Assayas's globo-thriller Boarding Gate and Abel Ferrara's degenerate ensemble comedy Go Go Tales. Erupting into the seedy striptease joint that provides the location for Ferrara's Bowery Home Companion, Asia gets down and does a dance with her dog that people will still be talking about at Cannes's 90th birthday. In the meantime, you'll find an annotated account of this year's winners online: www.villagevoice.com/film.