Heading into the home stretch, with 12 of the 18 competition films already screened, the 67th 2014 Cannes Film Festival is finally beginning to take shape, with the strongest contenders emerging and one dominant theme: The callous obliviousness of the rich and powerful. There's an almost puritanical urgency to these films that show little interest in frittering around with aesthetic experiments or shocking the bourgeoisie. Only Abel Ferrara's out-of-competition film, Welcome to New York, has managed to both damn the plutocrats while having some rude fun in the process.
Who will take the Palme d'Or on Saturday night? Though never an entirely reliable indicator of the sequestered jury, the daily reader polls, published in the daily trades, have weeded out a few front runners: Five of the films so far have a positive consensus. First off is Winter Sleep, the Turkish drama by Nuri Bilge Ceylan about a retired actor and his estranged wife managing a rural hotel. It has had consistently positive reviews across the international press and is considered the bookie favourite. A great nineteenth-century novel of a film, it deserves its front-runner status.
Another leading contender is Mr. Turner, British director Mike Leigh's portrait of eccentric 19th-century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, featuring a tour-de-force performance from Timothy Spall as a sensitive artist with a great deal of insensitivity to other people. Next up comes American film Foxcatcher, a subtly modulated true-crime drama from Bennett Miller set in the world of Olympic sport and dealing with the toxic impact of old money.
The new film from Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, which screened Tuesday morning and isn't yet rated in the critics' polls, is another obvious candidate for the top prize. The Dardennes, already two time Palme winners, have created another of their classic tales of working-class struggle in an elegantly simple quest story. It stars Marion Cotillard in a movingly authentic performance as a young wife and mother suffering from anxiety-depressive disorder, who, over the course of a weekend, must canvass her co-workers to see if they will agree to forgo a thousand euro bonus in exchange for letting her keep her job.
Also, likely in the prize winners' circle in some form will be Timbuktu, a spare, beautifully shot, Mali-set drama directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, about poor villagers taken over by gun-toting Islamic jihadists, a drama that puts a human face on a recent news story.
In the dark horse category, there's a chance for David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, a satire of Hollywood fear and greed. It earned some early English raves, followed by more ho-hum reactions from the heavy-weight American trades, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, who found it off-target. One aggregate web site, polling several dozen international critics, rates Maps quite highly; it may be a case that the further from Hollywood you are, the sharper it looks.
Everyone seems to like Wild Tales, a six-part series of comic revenge fantasies from Argentinian director Damian Szifron, though it's more of a sorbet between more serious films than a contender itself. Tommy Lee Jones' western, The Homesman (which features a Django Unchained-like attack on some ruthless land speculators), is liked and respected, though almost no one is picking it as a Palme winner, except possibly for acting awards.
The two entries from women directors - Alice Rohrwacher's Italian coming-of-age story, The Wonders, and Naomi Kawase's moody nature-filled adolescent drama of love and death, Still the Water – have their moments but feel minor.
Rounding out the list is Atom Egoyan's child abduction drama, The Captive, which seems well out of the running, (though the critic for France's Premiere magazine, picks it as the Palme choice). And finally, in the competition, there's Saint Laurent, a glittery portrait of the iconic fashion designer, his passions, his creativity and sheer fabulousness that seems so much of another era.
Six more films will show in the next three days, including two works by Cannes veterans - Ken Loach's Irish drama, Jimmy's Hall, and Jean-Luc Godard's typically cryptic Goodbye to Language, running a scant one hour and 10 minutes but in 3-D.
There are two mid-career films from interesting French directors working in English for better international sales: Michel Hazanavicius' Chechnyan war drama, The Search, with Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening, and Olivier Assayas' backstage drama, Clouds of Sils Maria. Also interesting is a Russian film, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, about an autoshop owner's battle with a ruthless mayor, hitting once again the festival's global theme of the abuses of power.
Finally, there's the last Canadian Palme d'Or opportunity, 25-year-old Xavier Dolan's domestic drama, Mommy, which screens on Thursday morning. Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux has already promised that the "baroque, bold" film will "be loved as much as it will exasperate." The question is whether it's bold enough to topple the gloriously bumptious Mr. Turner or the majestic Winter Sleep.