On Sunday, the Cannes Film Festival Jury, headed by Robert De Niro, will be announcing this year’s Palme d’Or. And while that’s certainly exciting, it's easy to overlook its twin award, the Palme d’Or for short film. The honor has existed for almost as long as the festival itself and over the years has jump-started quite a few careers, from Norman McLaren and Albert Lamorisse to Jane Campion and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. One can even trace the origins of the Romanian New Wave to 2004 and the victory of Cătălin Mitulescu’s “Trafic,” a year before his compatriots’ features started raising eyes on the Croisette. So in honor of the award (and because none of this year’s contenders are yet available on the web), here’s a look back at some of the finest work ever to take home a Palme d’Or du court métrage.
“An Exercise in Discipline – Peel” (1986)
Jane Campion, of course, has another Palme d’Or for 1993’s “The Piano.” Yet fans of that beautifully stylized work might not immediately recognize the Kiwi director’s hand in this short film. It’s much more representative of Campion’s blunter and grittier early period, an honest and matter-of-fact look into the life of a family at odds with itself. A man and his sister, along with his young son sit stagnant in a hot car, in the midst of a frustrating afternoon of driving and bickering. Yet Campion’s wonderful sense of both character and timing, coupled with Sally Bongers’ clever cinematography, lends a magic to this humdrum story that heralds the arrival of a great filmmaker. Watch it after the jump:
“When the Day Breaks” (1999)
This whimsical yet almost unexpectedly potent animated short is one of many National Film Board of Canada films that have been well received at Cannes over the years. With the textured look of a newsreel, animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis follow the story of an anthropomorphic pig who has just witnessed the death of a stranger firsthand. It begins quite charmingly, letting us ease into an urban cartoon of farm animals going about their morning errands. But these pleasantly relaxing moments, set to the warm singing of Martha Wainwright, break open with the sudden death of a chicken on a street corner. The abstractions to follow bring about a confrontation with our own fragility and mortality, yet somehow leave us in peace.
While “When the Day Breaks” addresses mortality through abstraction and cartoon animals, this Hungarian short lays it all out in the open. “Wind” is a single, haunting long take based on a photograph by Lucien Hervé. As the camera pans through a village landscape, populated by a few figures and almost no movement, one remains absolutely transfixed by the silent might of its lingering visuals. It shows the extraordinary power of minimalist filmmaking done well, and it’ll stick with you for days. This one has been made available online by daazo, alongside four other Hungarian Palm Winners. They’ve also put together a great PDF magazine covering this year’s shorts competition.
This short kicked off the career of Cătălin Mitulescu (who has a feature film in this year’s Un Certain Regard competition) and launched the Romanian New Wave. That may be a bold statement, but this is also an extraordinarily bold film. Set in the urban mess of modern-day Bucharest, “Trafic” follows its protagonist through the worst of an almost dystopian traffic jam. It not only gives us insight into the themes of the movement (absurd happenstance, urban frustration, understated existential gridlock), but masters them. With the typically bleak sense of dark humor that would come to characterize this group of starkly honest films, Mitulescu’s fantastic short is not only important in the context of later Romanian features but is an extraordinary accomplishment on its own.
I do not pretend to understand what this Belgian short film is trying to say. It may have something to do with psychoanalysis, it has more than a few mythological elements, and it is probably articulating something about gender. I’m not entirely sure, but it doesn’t matter because “Harpya” is pretty awesome. Director/animator Raoul Servais has created a fascinating and gothic world in these nine minutes, in a perpetually darkened European city. The title character is a magnificently eerie harpy that looks a bit like the lovechild of Nosferatu and Gozer (from “Ghostbusters”) who we watch as she tortures a very mustachioed Belgian gentleman. The atmosphere is deeply creepy yet at the same time almost hilariously absurd, and I must say it’s hard to tell when to shriek and when to laugh. Take a look and decide for yourself:
I was going to stop at five films, but after discovering this entirely delightful Super 8 short I couldn’t resist tacking it on. “Skaterdater” is more a coming of age visual essay than anything else, the dialog-free story of a group of skateboarding kids. They ride around causing mischief, harassing adults, and falling in love. The surf-rock score (composed by producing legends Nick Venet and Mike Curb) is all performed by Davie Allan and the Arrows, who add a pretty fantastic sense of hip motion to the film. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Super 8 was made for and turns out to be eighteen minutes of poor joy. Watch the whole thing.