“The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” (1964)
Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is a masterpiece of sincerity and melodrama. Gorgeously rendered, it looks like an eye-popping pastry tart and yet its style never unravels its genuinely poignant and heart wrenching tale of star-crossed lovers. Did we mention the romantic tragedy is also a musical? Which in many respects should make its affectations distance itself from pure emotion, but Demy's brilliant, heart-on-sleeve romantic musical is a triumph of story, character, music, songs and genuine pathos–it’s the equivalent of a cinematic opera and a gorgeous pop-art one at that. With a dazzling musical score written by the great Michel Legrand (who worked with everyone from Jean-Luc Godard and all the French New Wave to Clint Eastwood to Robert Altman) , 'Cherbourg' stars Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. as two Romeo and Juliet-esque lovers separated by class lines. Their love is discouraged, but relents nonetheless until the two are fatefully separated when he has to go off to war. A crucial moral dilemma (which we won’t spoil here, in case you haven’t seen it) presents itself just as he leaves and it is heart crushingly painful. The first musical to win the Palme d'Or, and not the last, 'Cherbourg' nails the beautiful formalism of musicals without the visual razzle-dazzle of dancing and fully realizes the crestfallen and bittersweet ache of unrequited love and dolorous fate. Demy would make other musicals in his career, and many other films too, but none would act like a shot to the heart like 'Cherbourg,' now cemented as all all-time classic, musical or otherwise. Demy beat out François Truffaut's "The Soft Skin" and films by Pietro Germi, Kon Ichikawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara to win the big prize on the Croisette that year.
Palme d’Or winners both fade and rise in esteem. Some are cemented in cinematic history and others become paler. Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” certainly falls in the latter camp, to the point that many modern-day cinephiles haven’t seen it (the fact that its only available on import as DVD doesn’t help). In fact, Kusturica, a Serbian filmmaker and two-time Palme d’Or winner has been all but forgotten as a modern day auteur. Perhaps it’s because his outrageous and farcical whirling dervish-like films were never really in step with American audiences or critics. And many might say “Underground” and its thinly-veiled critique of the ethnic Yugoslavian wars in the early 90s was nothing more than a not-so-allegoric propaganda piece. But really, that would not be giving this ambitious and riotous movie a fair shake. A black comedy with a sprawling, epic and near exhausting scope (164 minutes long), encapsulates 50 years of Yugoslavian history in three chapters by charting the absurd misadventures of two friends over several decades. About the inherently foolish nature of war, the movie is essentially about a man, and his accomplice, who deceives an entire community into living underground, convincing them that WWII rages on for more than 15 years. What’s perhaps so beautiful and awe-inspiring about “Underground” is how it’s as bizarre and as hilarious as any of Kusturica’s films, but as it moves up in the years, it slowly coils into something so tragic, sad and breathtakingly moving–an incredible build and evolution of tone, mood and emotion that is masterful. 1995 was a particularly good year and Kusturica's film bested the likes of Mathieu Kassovitz ("La Haine"), Tim Burton ("Ed Wood"), Larry Clark ("Kids"), Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man") and Theo Angelopoulos ("Ulysses' Gaze") for the top prize. Kusturica has been making movies less these days, having moved on to music, novels, autobiographies, political activism and more (and his last film, the 2008 documentary "Maradona" couldn't even find U.S. distribution; to be fair, there’s a new drama in the can), but he’ll always be known as a two-time Palme winner. Perhaps someone like Criterion can restore his good name one of these days.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
And you thought Terrence Malick took a long time to make a movie. Just imagine the narrative on this one: You begin shooting your film in 1976, and this turns into a sprawling 238-day shooting schedule, spread over 16 months. Your “nightmare” production is so notoriously troubled and prolonged it becomes the butt of late night punchlines and comic-strip jokes in magazines. And then, almost three years later, you win the coveted Palme d’Or prize to much applause and fanfare (in a 3-hour work-in-progress cut no less). Francis Ford Coppola was surely at the height of the hubris that would later take down his impeccable ‘70s career, but arguably he was also at the zenith of his genius. A hallucinogenic and nightmarish decent into the heart of darkness, Coppola’s 1970s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s famed novella used Vietnam as an allegory for the pandemonium and sheer madness that ensues during war. One of the greatest anti-war films ever—though its concerns are far deeper than just political statements—“Apocalypse Now” is a masterful look at the fallacy of order and the ever-enveloping psychosis of chaos. The haunting dread the movie emits as it snakes down the river towards a fateful doom is still chilling to this day. At its simplest, behind the barebones mission, it’s an examination of the psychology of two men at odds, on a collision course, and much more similar than they’d like to admit. Of course, it features terrific performances by Martin Sheen (arguably his career best), Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, many others and the movie is so bloody committed, it almost killed everyone in the making. Only seven filmmakers in the world have won more than one Palme d'Or and Coppola is rightfully among that elite group (though his ‘Apocalypse’ prize would be shared with Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum”). Coppola famously said the movie wasn’t about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. “We had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane." Thankfully for us that psychedelic and poetic anarchy is forever etched on screen for all time.
“Secrets & Lies” (1996)
When it comes to painting working class toils with intricate shades of family values on an urban canvas, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who does it better than Mike Leigh. And Cannes knows it, too. As a freshman at the festival in 1993, he received the Best Director Award for “Naked,” with his troubled protagonist Johnny getting David Thewlis the Best Actor award. Leigh's next film rolled its sleeves up even further to dive even deeper into the dirty dishes of kitchen sink realism, and came up with the indelible “Secrets & Lies.” Off to the French Riviera he went again, because why not? This time, as a sophomore, Leigh walked away with the Palme d'Or, and Brenda Blethyn picked up Best Actress. It's also worth mentioning that Jury President Francis Ford Coppola and his nine jurors picked Leigh's societal juggernaut over Lars Von Trier's “Breaking The Waves” and The Coen Bros' “Fargo." That's how good “Secrets & Lies” is, and how important the statement of awarding it the highest honour in 1996 was. As with most of Leigh's greatest outputs, plot and narrative are invisible to character, relationships, and an incredible dexterity at handling human pathos. What makes “Secrets & Lies” among his very best work is the added milieu teetering on the edge, and silently pulling emotional strings both off and on screen; in this case, when the black middle-class Hortence (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) finds out that her biological mother is white working-class Cynthia (Blethyn), the themes of race and family blood are introduced but never hammered down too hard. Watching a Leigh film is like taking a crash course in life, the experience always leaving us with heaps of food for thought. This year, Leigh is back at Cannes with “Mr. Turner” and our excitement is only kept in check by our appetite.