CANNES — Usually by this point in the Cannes Film Festival, the race for the Palme d’Or has narrowed itself down to one or two clear frontrunners. The sustained critical love for Michael Haneke’s “Amour” made it seem the most logical choice around this time last year, and so it was, despite ardent pockets of support for Leos Carax’s ultimately unrewarded “Holy Motors.” In 2011, a sense of inevitability had descended upon Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which might have faced stiffer competition had Lars von Trier not Nazi-joked himself out of the running for “Melancholia.”
It’s a testament to the strength of this year’s competition slate, however, that no single runaway favorite seems to have declared itself. As many as five or six well-regarded pictures — including but not limited to “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Past,” “Like Father, Like Son” and “The Great Beauty” — have made strong cases for themselves in an unusually wide-open, consensus-defying selection.
It should be noted that all this educated journalistic guesswork is based on a highly unscientific (but not necessarily unreliable) algorithm of hunches, gossip and individual taste. Still, if the buzz is to be believed, the film that seems to have most distinguished itself from the pack — and certainly generated the most conversation — is Abdellatif Kechiche’s sprawling but intimate lesbian romance “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which took the Croisette by storm upon its first press screenings on Wednesday night and has dominated the critics’ polls ever since.
Passionately adored despite its hefty three-hour running time (the longest of any competition entry this year), and heatedly discussed on the basis of its intensely graphic sex scenes, the film would seem to pose its own greatest threat to itself, awards-wise: The very real possibility of star Adele Exarchopoulos winning the actress prize would throw the movie out of Palme contention, based on recently amended rules limiting the number of major awards any single picture can win.
Incidentally, a victory for “Blue” would make it the first out-and-out gay love story to win Cannes’ highest honor, which would seem especially relevant in light of the fact that France legalized gay marriage just last week. (Another potential candidate that would achieve the same precedent: Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace drama “Behind the Candelabra.”) If they’re looking to make a bold political/artistic statement, “Blue” is the film to pick, although it’s a fair question whether a Steven Spielberg-led jury will go for something this raw, edgy and overtly sexual.
Two critical favorites have had considerable staying power despite having screened relatively early in the festival. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, who previously won Berlin’s top prize and a foreign-language-film Oscar for “A Separation,” has drawn similar plaudits for another potent domestic drama, “The Past.” An absorbing marriage of classy arthouse pedigree and intense emotion, this French-Italian co-production might prove a strong middle-ground choice if Spielberg’s jury proves a fractious one. At the same time, its intricately constructed script seems a hot contender for the screenplay prize, which would knock it out of Palme contention.
Another early favorite is the new film from the Coen brothers, gunning for their first Palme since 1991′s “Barton Fink.” While “Inside Llewyn Davis” was initially billed as a minor work, its lovingly idiosyncratic take on the 1960s folk-music scene has earned the sibling directors almost unanimously glowing notices and actually inspired applause mid-screening, thanks to a particularly infectious musical number. Yet like “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the film could lengthen its own odds due to its kudo-worthy lead performance, courtesy of Oscar Isaac.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” was perhaps the most widely acclaimed American film in an especially good year for them. “Behind the Candelabra,” Soderbergh’s HBO telepic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, has proven enormously popular with Cannes audiences and could be a sentimental favorite; considering Soderbergh won the top prize for his 1989 debut feature, “sex, lies and videotape,” this could be an exceedingly rare opportunity to honor a singular director with career-bookend Palmes, assuming “Candelabra” is indeed his last film.
James Gray’s polarizing period drama “The Immigrant,” which has moved some viewers to tears while boring others, could also find favor with jurors, although they might even more plausibly choose to give their actress prize to Marion Cotillard for her excellent bilingual turn. The remaining two U.S. entries, Alexander Payne’s wistful road movie “Nebraska” and Jim Jarmusch’s endearing vampire saga “Only Lovers Left Alive,” seem like longer shots for recognition, but have their supporters regardless.
A key consideration in any festival competition is which film might appeal most to the jury president, a factor that has taken on unusual weight this year considering the president happens to be Hollywood’s most famous living director. It remains to be seen how domineering a foreman Spielberg turns out to be — whether he’ll be a consensus-seeking Robert De Niro type, or go the more aggressive Isabelle Huppert route. (My hunch: somewhere in the middle.)
It’s worth noting that filmmakers on juries don’t necessarily gravitate toward movies that reflect their own sense of aesthetics and worldview, something Cannes has demonstrated often enough in the past (notably when Wong Kar-wai’s 2006 jury honored Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” or when David Lynch’s 2002 jury picked Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”). Spielberg, in particular, is as broad-minded a cinephile as any filmmaker now working, and attempting to pigeonhole his preferences could well be a fool’s errand.
Still, the Spielberg-taste factor has pushed at least two very different, very well-received entries to the fore of the conversation. One of these is Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son,” whose deft navigation of a highly emotional family drama has led more than one festival-goer to proclaim it the competition’s most classically Spielbergian entry. The other is Italian helmer Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” whose modern-day homage to “La dolce vita” (another Palme winner) could strike a chord with Spielberg, who has cited Fellini as a key inspiration.
The competition boasts no shortage of contenders for awards in other categories. Kechiche, the Coens, Sorrentino and Soderbergh are all possibilities for a directing prize, as is Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, who impressed many with his muscular work on “A Touch of Sin.” Actors who shouldn’t be counted out for thesping kudos include Emmanuelle Seigner in Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” Berenice Bejo in “The Past,” Toni Servillo in “The Great Beauty,” Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” and Benicio Del Toro in Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian).” And if the jury decides to present an impromptu technical prize for best wallpaper, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is a shoo-in.
Critics can be notoriously awful when it comes to prognosticating, but having weighed the options, and with zero expectation of accuracy, here is my own educated guesswork — to be thrown out immediately upon announcement of Sunday’s award winners.
Palme d’Or: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Grand Prix: “The Great Beauty”
Jury Prize: “Like Father, Like Son”
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Actor: Michael Douglas, “Behind the Candelabra”
Actress: Marion Cotillard, “The Immigrant”
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi, “The Past”