Cannes at Midpoint: Will Tree of Life Wow the Jury? Or Could a Slow-Burning Favorite Sneak Up From Behind?

Monday marked the Cannes Film Festival midpoint, a time to pause, reflect and -- cry. When a friend warned me last week that at some point I would burst into tears -- from exhaustion, frustration, anxiety, or some combination of the three -- I thought she was merely sharing her own personal experience. But this morning alone, I heard three critics mention the potential onset of a crying jag; one had just heard a male Australian critic announce cheerfully, "Usually by this time in the festival, I've broken down and wept, but not this year!"

I haven't cried yet, knock wood, but I have seen a surprising number of reasonably good -- and a few terrific -- movies. The consensus among critics is that this is a pretty strong year for the competition films: I've heard few vitriolic rants, though also few outright raves. Perhaps we're all just pacing ourselves. This year, the real must-sees among the competition films haven't all been frontloaded: Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In are yet to come, in addition to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive and Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place. As far as Palme d'Or possibilities go, the field is still wide open, and anticipation of a great surprise to come could be the thing that's keeping everyone here so buoyant and cheerful (though the sunshine sure doesn't hurt).

Everyone here has his or her oddball favorites, but thus far the films that have been least warmly received, as far as I can surmise, are Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance and Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty -- both, interestingly enough, dealing with women who sell themselves for money. House of Tolerance, or L'Apollonide: Souvenirs De La Maison Close, set in fin de siècle Paris, betrays its audience in the final stretch, with graphic violence and a stupidly obvious metaphor. Sleeping Beauty is a more tempered and ultimately more thoughtful piece of work: Emily Browning (recently seen in Sucker Punch) plays an Australian university student who signs on with a high-class madam (Rachael Blake) whose specialty is arranging "appointments" in which gentlemen (mostly elderly, decrepit ones) pay to spend the night with a sleeping maiden. (One of the ground rules is, no penetration -- though as one patron suggests wryly, most of these guys would need a boatload of Viagra for that possibility to raise its shriveled little head.)

An austere, formalist fairy-tale, Sleeping Beauty is gorgeously filmed -- its eroticism is of the peaches-and-cream kind, thanks in part to Browning's pre-Raphaelite beauty: She looks like a Burne Jones painting come to life. Less appealing are the buck-naked old-timers who slip into bed with her. (She's drugged beforehand, so she doesn't know what they do with her, and she remembers nothing upon waking.) The picture makes a mild statement about the desperation and confusion that drives women to sell their bodies for sex, and while it's refreshingly un-preachy, it also isn't particularly clear about what it's trying to say. Sleeping Beauty probably isn't a Palme d'Or candidate, but it is an intriguing and slightly unsettling piece of work -- the sort of thing that, when it's released in the States (it's been acquired by Sundance Selects), is worth checking out.

The Israeli film Footnote, a drama about the rivalry between father-and-son Talmudic scholars directed by Joseph Cedar, is another slow-burning favorite among some critics I've spoken to. The picture is extremely well-made -- and admittedly, it isn't the sort of subject matter you see every day -- but I confess to finding it a bit snoozy. Other films that have gotten people talking here are Maïwenn's Polisse, about Paris cops dealing with victims of child abuse, which may have too much of a made-for-TV vibe to be a serious Palme d'Or contender, although the storytelling is refreshingly direct and unassuming.

The critics I know seem to be divided on the one competition film I've missed so far: I probably don't need to spell out why I'm somewhat apprehensive about Michael, Markus Schleinzer's study of a pedophile who kidnaps and rapes a 10-year-old boy. I've heard critics railing against it for what they see as its exploitative tendencies. But more than a few people I've talked to have noted that the film deals with its subject seriously and with the right amount of discretion, considering the difficult subject matter. I hope to catch it on the last day of screenings, this Sunday.

So do people here think we've already seen the Palme d'Or winner? It's hard to say, especially because the tastes of critics don't always fall in line with those of jury members. It's possible the jury might be impressed by the ambition and scope of Tree of Life. (And it doesn't matter whether you love Tree of Life, hate it, or fall somewhere in the middle: It's a force to be reckoned with, and many critics here are still wrestling with it.) But there's still a gently rolling groundswell of enthusiasm for The Artist, Michel Havanicius' delightful -- and gorgeously crafted -- black-and-white silent. Some critics here seem to think it's too lightweight, and that it's like too many other silent films they've seen before. My answer: Yes, but is it like any silent film made in the past 25 years? They don't have an answer for that one.

Another potential favorite is the Dardenne Brothers' The Kid with a Bike: I've heard many critics sniff that it's too slight, but the more I think about it, the more I respect the Dardennes for choosing not to grind us down with pessimism. Is it the kind of overwhelmingly impressive or imaginative work that's likely to win over a jury? Probably not. Then again, if last year's jury had the wherewithal to choose Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's quiet, strange and mystical Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, anything can happen. If monkey ghosts can win favor with a jury, there's no reason a scrappy little shaver on a bike can't.



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