CANNES, FRANCE — The fun is winding down and the sad thing is, there could have been even more.
Cannes's programmers had carefully contrived a Palme d'Or celebrity death match between two wildly polarizing contenders with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in the white trunks and Lars von Trier's Melancholia in the black. Then, as Melancholia's star Kirsten Dunst told one journalist, Lars had to “run his mouth.” Why couldn't the irrepressible Dane have informed reporters that it was Stalin or Qaddafi or Milosevic whom he “understood”?
Given Tree vs. Trier, the Cannes jury — headed by Robert De Niro and including Argentine actress Martina Gusman, Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi, Norwegian writer Linn (daughter of Liv) Ullmann, directors Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Johnnie To and Olivier Assayas, plus Uma Thurman and Jude Law — might have deadlocked.
This in turn could have opened the path for the Weinstein Company's newly acquired crowd-pleaser and late competitive entry, The Artist — a surprisingly agreeable silent-film pastiche made by Michel Hazanavicius in a nearly unexhibitable screen format — with the two heavyweights recognized by friendly consolation prizes for actors Brad Pitt and Dunst. (The latter still might happen, although Tilda Swinton's scenery chewing turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin is, as is often said here, bad enough to win.)
Melancholia remains in competition but, thanks to Lars' self-destruct act and subsequent trip to the woodshed, its chances of winning seem less likely than that of the competition's two commercial formula flicks, Takashi Miike's retro-fitted 3D samurai remake Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai or Nicolas Winding Refn's faux '80s abstract action flick Drive. As of today, The Tree of Life is the heavy betting favorite, as well as the leading film in Le Film Français's critics poll (with The Artist running second).
Tree does less well in Screen's more international poll, tied with The Artist for third place, behind the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike and Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre. The latter, a good-natured comedy of working-class solidarity, was greeted more warmly by the press than any movie in the competition.
For me, the competitive section included a healthy half-dozen notable films: Melancholia, Le Havre, and The Kid with a Bike (all by Cannes favorites returning to form), Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar's Talmudic Footnote, Austrian first-timer Markus Schleinzer's deadpan pederast thriller Michael (quite different father-son stories and minority tastes both), and, as much as I resisted it, The Artist. (There was also Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala which, had it not been relegated to Un Certain Regard, would surely have been a contender.)
There were also two major disappointments (The Tree of Life and We Need to Talk About Kevin), three minor ones (perennial also-ran Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, Nanni Moretti's Habemas Papam, and Hara-Kiri) as well as several more too soporific, risible or unwatchable to mention.
All in all, not a bad bunch. There are still several movies to screen, most notably Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but I'm prepared to state that, despite a slow start, this year's competition has been the strongest I've seen since 2006 and one of the most interesting ever. The Tree of Life seems poised to sweep the table Sunday night but, were I the Jury, I'd propose in the name of sweet reason (and my late father's namesake) the following Solomonic slate: The Artist for Palme d'Or, with Le Havre getting the runner up Grand Prix, Michael awarded the honorable mention Prix du Jury, and special jury recognition to Jafar Panahi's underground out-of-competition This is Not a Film. Pay-off prizes for Pitt and Dunst, and, in the utopian spirit of Le Havre, best director to the Dardennes and best scenario to Joseph Cedar.
My only prediction: It ain't gonna happen.