South Korean Comic Thriller Wins Palme D’Or, Wraps Up a Thrilling Festival
In an unexpected pivot towards gleefully wicked fun, the competition jury at Cannes gave the Palme d’Or to Bong Joon-ho’s twisted comic thriller Parasite. According to the jurors, the choice wasn’t even close. “Even in the times that we’re living where democracy is disappearing, I assure you that this jury was absolutely democratic,” said jury president Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu at Saturday’s Closing Night ceremony. “And I want to announce that this decision was unanimous.”
Parasite follows a desperately broke family that cleverly weasels its way into a posh upper-class household, with jaw-dropping repercussions. A critically adored crowd-pleaser, it’s the first South Korean film ever to win the top prize at Cannes. And the wild ride is also indescribably surprising. A week before the movie made its world premiere, Bong took to social media and posted “A Word of Pleading,” which begged people not to reveal its plot twists. “I bow my head and implore you – please refrain from spoilers,” he wrote.
No problem. The hilariously inventive story has so many unexpected moments of out-there mayhem that it’s hard to keep count. And the ways in which Bong turns the screws on the clan of grifters is absolutely riveting. In his acceptance speech, Bong made sure to give props to two Gallic masters of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol. “I didn’t prepare a French speech,” said Bong. “Because I never imagined this situation.”
He’s not just being modest: the Palme d’Or winner usually goes to high-art profundities, not genre-bending exercises that earn peals of laughter. One early segment of inspired lunacy even got a stone-faced crowd of impress-me critics to burst onto spontaneous applause. On the 25th anniversary of Pulp Fiction winning the Palme d’Or, Parasite is an apt recipient.
But Parasite also maintains social relevance in its portrait of an underclass so bereft of opportunities that it’s pushed to extremes. At a press conference after the awards ceremony, Iñárritu underscored this idea. “Art is a reflection of the world and the world is reflected in art,” he said. “I think, now, cinema has an urgency of social consciousness around the world. That is very interesting to me.”
A Strong, Beautiful Competition
That sentiment is probably why the jury gave its 2nd place Grand Prix to Mati Diop’s literally haunting Atlantics, a romantic ghost story set among exploited construction workers in Dakar. It also split the 3rd place Prix du Jury between two films of social strife: Ladj Ly’s tragic banlieue policier Les Misérables and the surreal neo-revolutionary action pic Bacurau, by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles.
“I have been coming to the Cannes Film Festival for 20 years, in the beginning as a film journalist, as a film programmer, and as a film critic,” said Filho in his acceptance speech. “You can’t imagine the kind of mind-fuck it is to be here, accepting the July Prize in such a strong, beautiful competition.”
Best Screenplay went to the searing lesbian love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. British actress Emily Beecham won the Best Actress award for her eerie portrayal of an increasingly paranoid botanist in Jessica Hausner’s metaphorical sci-fi chiller Little Joe. And the Belgian filmmaker siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne nabbed Best Director for Young Ahmed, their harrowing look at a religious extremist.
The Palm Dog
But the prize that earned the warmest reception was Best Actor for Antonio Banderas, who played a thinly veiled version of Pedro Almodóvar in the Spanish auteur’s touching auto-fiction Pain and Glory. “You have no ideas how much I would love to speak French. But I can’t,” said Banderas in English. “And at the same time, I feel like speaking Spanish, because this is a Spanish movie. So I’m going to try to make a Spanish paella with both languages, English and Spanish.”
America’s two previous Palme d’Or winners went home unrecognized, although neither director should be too unhappy. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life got nothing except a rich distribution deal with Fox Searchlight worth as much as $14 million. Disney’s latest corporate acquisition is apparently having fun spending some of that Avengers: Endgame money.
And, despite glowing reviews that singled out career-best work from Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood got nothing from the competition jury. It did, however, win one of the longest-running gag prizes in Cannes: the Palm Dog, given out to the film with the best canine performances.
Pitt’s character in the film has a pit bull named Brandy, who plays a small but memorable role. And Tarantino surprised everyone by showing up to personally accept the award: a bright red leather dog collar with the prize name emblazoned on it. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my black heart,” he said. “At least I didn’t go home empty-handed!”