With 10 of the 19 competition films already shown at this year's Cannes film festival, the race for the Palme d'Or is beginning to take shape – and two strong contenders and a few acting possibilities are emerging. Tuesday morning there's the Mexican border crime drama Sicario, from Canada's Denis Villeneuve, and at least three or four more strong contenders to come before Sunday's closing awards. At Cannes, though, it's never too early to start Palme reading.
At the top of the magazine critics' polls is Carol, Todd Haynes' lustrous but restrained adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel about a lesbian affair between a middle-class housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a young shopgirl (Rooney Mara).
Carol is a beautiful jewel-box of a film and looks like an Oscar contender, though my own choice for best film is Hungarian director László Nemes's stunning Holocaust drama Saul Fia (Son of Saul), which feels genuinely groundbreaking, immersing the viewer in the terror of Auschwitz-Birkenau without becoming completely intolerable. Shot in shallow focus in a restricted almost-square frame, this film is like gazing through a narrow window into hell.
Running third in the critics' polls, especially among French reviewers, is Italian director Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre (My Mother), the story of a female director (Margherita Buy) making a social drama while coping with her pompous American star (John Turturro) and dealing with her dying mother. I found it no more than mildly amusing and very familiar.
Next up (third on my list) is The Lobster, an unsettling deadpan black comedy from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his English-language debut. The film, starring Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz, is set in a future city where single adults who can't find a mate are transformed into animals.
I'd put The Lobster in a tie position with Stéphane Brizé's La Loi du Marché (The Measure of a Man), the story of a middle-aged unemployed French father (a terrific Vincent Lindon) trying to provide for his wife and disabled son. In the film's second half, he becomes a security guard at a grocery store, an effective portrait of the human casualties of consumerism and the surveillance society.
The much-anticipated English debut of Norwegian director Joachim Trier's Louder than Bombs is faultlessly intelligent and sensitive, but too emotionally muted and self-conscious to really work. A dysfunctional family drama in the tradition of The Ice Storm and Ordinary People, the story follows grieving father Gabriel Byrne, professor son Jesse Eisenberg and troubled teen Devin Druid in the aftermath of the death of their war photographer wife and mother Isabelle Huppert.
Mostly of novelty interest, but well done, is the lush and gory Tale of Tales, from Matteo Garrone, the Italian director behind the crime drama Gomorrah. Tale of Tales is based on three adult fairy tales written by Giambattista Basile in the early 17th century. The stars include Salma Hayek as a childless queen who will go to extreme lengths to conceive, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly as three kings with different weaknesses, and one truly disgusting giant flea.
I haven't had a chance to see Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister, the story of three grown sisters who bring a teenaged half-sister into their family after the death of their father. Most reviews have been tepid to mildly positive.
The last two contenders fall into the "Why are they here again?" category. French actress-director Maiwenn's film My King is a quintessentially French story of a bourgeois marriage, from start to finish, with lots of dinners, drinking and capital-A acting from Vincent Cassel as a roguish restaurateur and Emmanuelle Bercot as the Parisian lawyer who falls for him. It's a good airplane movie but not much more.
Finally, Gus Van Sant's Sea of Trees, a sort of syrupy reduction of Buddhist philosophy, stars Matthew McConaughey as a grieving science teacher who travels to Japan to kill himself. The film was booed by some critics at the press screening and earned negative reviews, so its inclusion raises familiar questions about Cannes's puzzling loyalty to favourite directors.
At the press conference, a philosophical McConaughey said: "Anyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate."
Here's hoping for less booing and more ovating as the festival comes out of the backstretch.