Storytelling through the Cannes Prism

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As President of the Jury, Australian actress Cate Blanchett opened the Cannes International Film Festival this year. And if Australian masterpieces ‘Charlie’s Country’, ‘Snowtown’, ‘Samson & Delilah’, ‘Ten Canoes’ and ‘The Piano’ have been awarded at the Cannes International Film Festival over the past thirty years, no Australian film has ever won the prestigious Best Screenplay award at the festival. Maybe your script could be the first?

What makes a great ‘Cannes’ Screenplay?

Some are underlined with political tones, like the very first recipient of this award, “Lost Boundaries”, in 1949, or Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land” which won the award in 2001. Some embrace a more comedic genre, in the likes of the quirky “Nurse Betty” in 2000 and Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” in 2006. But all develop a common thread: they have very strong human dilemmas at the core of their stories. Thus they are excellent examples to follow when you try to anchor your own script into such strong dilemmas.

A perfect example is the parabolic tale of “Leviathan”, which snatched the prize in 2014. Written by Oleg Negin and 2017 Palme D’Or recipient Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” could have been the mere cautionary tale of a political scam in a remote Russian community. But the writers confronted their main character Kolya with a strong dilemma (should he sell his house to the crooked mayor or fight for his land?) and then hit him with all the adversity they could, making Kolya question his decision at every turn of the story. Keeping the goal and the dilemma alive, they allow the audience to constantly want to know more, to explore more of Kolya’s decision, right to its bitter end.

The same goes for French comedy “Dead Tired”, which won the award in 1994. Setting his world on the edge between reality and fiction, writer/director Michel Blanc confronts his own self to the concept of stardom and the gilded cage it can represent. Welling ideas from his own experience with fans, he develops surreal dilemmas for his main character, constantly battling between the idealised life of a renowned actor and the life he could have had as a nobody. Using comedy and surrealism, Blanc opens up on the unexpected consequences of his own choices in a more convincing way that he would have done in any documentary form.

If some of the Cannes winners are more challenging for the audience, in not providing the immediate gratification offered by mainstream movies, they can be a gold mine for any curious minds who want to observe how effective and powerful human dilemmas are developed in screen storytelling.

Laurent Auclair