Cannes Diary—The Final Entry: Julia Ducournau Makes History in Awards Ceremony to Remember

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After a day at the beach, our Festiville correspondent Brian Formo enters the awards vortex, and is swept up by Jury President Spike Lee’s enthusiasm for announcing prizes out of order.

On my last day at the Festival de Cannes, I skipped screenings in favor of going to a separate seaside village, Antibes, to look at Picasso paintings, swim at a less crowded beach, and essentially, escape the immaculate put togetherness of the red carpet and the overall Cannes vibe of every-person-looks-like-a-model-and-I’m-self-conscious-about-my-mosquito-bites. Antibes, just a 15-minute train ride away, is a town more my speed—so much so, I debated not attending the awards ceremony and just looking up the winners on the train. 

I am very glad that I returned in time, because not only did Julia Ducournau make history by being only the second female director to win the Palme d’Or for Titane (Jane Campion was the first in 1993 for The Piano), but also because the award show was such a glorious train-wreck it became its own endearing side event. Ducournau’s first words upon accepting were: “This is so perfect because it’s imperfect how it happened… Why am I speaking in English? I’m French!” 

First, though, let’s back up a little bit. To the beginning. When I first talked to Letterboxd’s editor-in-chief, Gemma Gracewood, about covering Cannes, she had asked that I make the readership feel like they’re there. And something new to me in Cannes was the red carpet clues that signalled probable winners. I have followed the Cannes Film Festival for years, but primarily from the West Coast of the US where the awards happen at 10.00am my local time. It’s a nice start to the day: have some coffee, make a sweet potato hash, check out the Cannes winners. But being here throughout the day, it becomes a big social media to-do; a hunt for any giveaways, a guessing game with clues in plain daylight. 

So if you like to go in blind to movies and award ceremonies (and I do—surprises are nice), let this be a warning. What I did not know is that the cast and crew who are going to receive an award are called back to Cannes to walk the red carpet together and sit in the audience. Silly me, I just figured Paul Verhoeven, Mia Hansen-Løve and the like just stayed here as long as they liked and showed up at the ceremony as hopefuls. But no, talent leaves, and if they get the call on the day of the closing ceremony to come back then they know someone from their film is winning something. So it’s less like an awards show and more like The Bachelor. Yeah, I said it. 

So in the time zone where this is happening, stars are posting on their Instagram that they’re headed back to Cannes, or reporters leak which filmmakers have been asked to return. All of which means that before the ceremony starts, you already know which films will be awarded— you just don’t know where they’ll slot. Dear ‘boxders, this shattered an illusion of mine.

Even if you weren’t on social media during the day, once you are at the ceremony, they beam in the red carpet live coverage into the theater, so the clues are all there, but you still don’t know who is winning the top prize. Except that, at this closing ceremony, Spike Lee gave the top prize away right off the bat. 

When the Master of Ceremonies, Doria Tillier, speaking both in French and English, asked Lee “which award is first?” Lee misunderstood and announced the first prize winner overall,  the Palme d’Or, rather the first winner of a prize that night. “First, the Palme d’Or goes to: Titane.” Actress Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Cannes 2009), seated next to Lee, gasped and reached to grab Lee’s arm. Actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, Cannes 2009) came to Lee’s aid, hugging, kissing, and sitting with the all-time great but incredibly embarrassed director.

The snafu rattled Lee’s cage so much that the flubs continued. Part of this is because it’s an illogical show: asking the President of the Jury what award is next so that the host can bring out a celebrity to introduce it, and then go back to Lee to ask who won it—all to get more star power in the room. But hey, Sharon Stone, Adèle Exarchopoulous, and Rosamund Pike brought the va-va-voom (Oliver Stone was also there, no va, no voom). 

I felt bad for Lee and I know Lee felt bad for Ducournau and her team, so I was drawn to the interactions on the couch. Rahim left his spot on the back couch and sat right next to Lee, suit to suit, all smiles and walking Lee through French issues and just being an all around good dude. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Maybe this camaraderie will get Rahim in a Lee movie? At the very least, it endeared me a lot. It was a simple mistake, but it’s not like something horrible happened. Ultimately, an exciting movie won a major award. It just won it out of order and then everyone tried to pretend that the word wasn’t heard at all—and Ducournau’s reaction was as thrilling as you’d hope.

Later, Lee praised Titane, saying, “I’ve seen a lot of films, but this is the first film ever where a [spoiler] [spoiled] a [spoiler]. That blew my mind! That’s genius and craziness together. And those two things often match up.” In accepting the award, Ducournau said, “Thank you to the Jury for letting the monsters in.”

Ducournau’s gender isn’t the only history-making aspect to Titane’s win. The gnarliness of the film, following in the footsteps of Parasite’s win at the last festival, shows more of an appetite for cult filmmaking styles on the Croisette. The last two wins put Cannes in a slightly different cultural space. For instance, a film that Titane shares some similarities with, David Cronenberg’s Crash, has the Cannes lore of making certain jurors uncomfortable enough that it was supposedly forbidden by Francis Ford Coppola from being considered for the Palme; instead, its defenders were able to create a special award distinction, never awarded before or since, to go to Crash, “for originality, for daring and for audacity.” 

Titane is a monumental win in the annals of Cannes history for a multitude of reasons. And, in my writeup yesterday where I mentioned that I volleyed back and forth between Titane and A Hero for best in show, I am (slightly) back in Titane’s camp because I have to acknowledge how much real estate this movie has taken up in my brain. I haven’t been able to shake it since seeing it. Which is a telling feat. A Hero is impeccable, Titane is unheard of. And I can’t wait for you to see them.

After the ceremony, I had dinner with a few critics who had heard that two of the female directors on the jury, Mati Diop (Atlantics) and Jessica Hausner (Little Joe), lead the Titane charge—to which we agreed having female filmmakers on the jury, not just actresses (more common), can lead to discussions that perhaps many Cannes juries hadn’t had before. 

The74th Festival de Cannes feature film competition award winners:

Palme d’Or (first place): Titane, France 🇫🇷  (My Festiville write-up)
Grand Prix (second place): A Hero, Iran 🇮🇷  (my Festiville write-up); Compartment No. 6, Finland 🇫🇮
Jury Prize (third place): Ahed’s Knee, Israel 🇮🇱; Memoria, Thailand 🇹🇭 (My Festiville write-up)
Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director): Leos Carax, Annette 🇫🇷 /🇺🇸 (My Festiville write-up)
Prix d'interprétation féminine (Best Actress): Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World 🇳🇴  (My Festiville write-up)
Prix d'interprétation masculine (Best Actor): Caleb Landry Jones, Nitram 🇦🇺  (My Festiville write-up)
Prix du scénario (Best Screenplay): Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car 🇯🇵  (My Festiville write-up)

There are a few films that I missed despite reading trustworthy folks’ praise, including Compartment No. 6, which won a Grand Prix; Unclenching the Fists, which won the Un Certain Regard section; and A Chiara, which won the Director’s Fortnight section. Because this was my first Cannes, maybe I stuck too closely to the competition list. I wish I’d caught a few more films outside of competition instead of a trio of Hollywood fare that didn’t look good to begin with. Stinkers, all. That is the learning curve I’m taking away: to explore more of the other sections. 

Despite my day off from screenings today, I did pick up a piece of buzz: though it only screened at midnight last night and once this morning, Gaspar Noé’s new film, Vortex, received amazing notices; particularly from people who seemed to have given up on him. His latest—concerning dementia and starring Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun—is being described as an earnest departure from the provocateur. 

While I did not have the opportunity to catch Vortex, it did provide one of my favorite visuals in Cannes. There is a funny thing here where men dress up in tuxes and women in their finest attire and stand outside premieres holding up handwritten signs in an attempt to snag premiere tickets and be in the same room as celebrities. In my mind, there’s nothing more Gaspar Noé than a bunch of beautiful people in gorgeous attire holding up signs saying “Looking for Vortex.”

That there, in the vortex, seems like a good place to say au revoir. I hope to be back at Cannes, but primarily, I just thank anyone who read any, all, or most of these diary entries. This was exciting for me to be able to do—something that almost didn’t even happen—and I appreciate the positive feedback. 

Most importantly, I’m glad there were so many amazing films this year. It feels like one for the books. History was made, masterpieces were seen, many positive ratings were given out, and a wild awards show was the cherry on top.

Très bien