CANNES – Sometimes, the pre-festival buzz has it right. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 196-minute conversational epic “Winter Sleep” entered the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as the sight-unseen frontrunner for the Palme d'Or, thanks to its heftiness of form and the Turkish auteur's perceived overdue status – any director with two Grand Prix wins and a Best Director prize behind him is bound to win the Palme at some point.
The wave of strong critical reactions to “Winter Sleep,” after it screened in the festival's opened days, suggested that this could be the year – though the late-breaking chatter about Andrei Zvyagintsev's muscular satirical tragedy “Leviathan” in the last two days had many Cannes attendees (this one included) thinking the Russian film could pull it off.
It wasn't to be: Jane Campion's jury went with Ceylan for the top prize, rewarding Zvyagintsev's film – newly picked up by Sony Pictures Classics – with the comparatively minor Best Screenplay award instead.
The Palme d'Or win gives a handy boost to “Winter Sleep,” a somewhat audience-averse film that represents a distinct distribution challenge, with its minimal narrative driven by circuitous political and intellectual debates. Turkey will likely select it as their foreign-language Oscar entry, but don't expect the Academy – which has rejected more accessible work by Ceylan in the past – to jump to attention.
A greater threat for the Palme, it seems, was a film that figured in few people's prediction lists: Italian-German director Alice Rohrwacher's sophomore feature “The Wonders” took the Grand Prix du Jury, a surprise that seemed to be warmly received in the room. I have yet to catch up with the film, which a friend described as having “'Dogtooth' vibes with added beekeeping and Catholic overtones,” but was an admirer of Rohrwacher's debut “Corpo Celeste.”
Nice, too, to see one of the Competition's two female directors honored by Campion — still the only female filmmaker ever to win the Palme d'Or. Advance chatter that “Still the Water” director Naomi Kawase had been invited back for the awards ceremony proved untrue. (Away from the Competition awards, two women were among the three directors sharing the Camera d'Or for best debut film at the festival: I didn't see “Party Girl” myself, but Drew McWeeny was very high on it.)
In contrast to somewhat esoteric choices in the top categories, big-name English-language cinema was also well represented in the winners list. Cannes juries often overlook strong US mainstream cinema that looks otherwise awards-bound, so Bennett Miller's riveting true-crime drama “Foxcatcher” – widely touted as the likeliest Oscar player in Cannes this year — wasn't expected to win big tonight. Instead, the jury surprised by handing Bennett Miller a well-deserved Best Director award for his third feature and first festival entry. It's as good a start to the film's Oscar campaign as they could have asked for.
Sony Pictures Classics must be smiling, given that their robust Cannes slate includes not only the Best Director and Best Screenplay winners, but the Best Actor champ too: as was widely predicted, veteran British character actor Timothy Spall took the prize for playing British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner in hale, hearty fashion in Mike Leigh's gorgeously mounted biopic “Mr. Turner.” It's the kind of large, expressive biographical performance (in the kind of handsome, moving heritage film) that Academy voters respect; expect a busy campaign for him at the year's end.