Revisiting Cannes: Best Actress


Where actresses are concerned in Cannes, there seldom is a limited range of women from which the voters have to make their decision on who is “best”. The diversity of films that tend to be in competition at the festival each year means they might often be spoilt for choice. Multiple Oscar winners like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Sally Field, and Meryl Streep have all ventured to the festival and conquered – for films not necessaily recognised with gold by AMPAS. I’m not about to rattle on about Academy Award winners though. Not even going to mention Julianne Moore, who took the award for, and literally so in, Maps to the Stars last year.

The likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren have won it twice. In fact, the British ladies have done extremely well with this prize over the years. Also twice a Best Actress recipient in Cannes is Barbara Hershey, who actually won in consecutive years in the late eighties – the second time was a prize for the female cast of A World Apart. They gave Brink of Life the prize for their actresses in 1958 (Ingrid Thulin, Eva Dahlbeck, Bibi Andersson, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs), as well as more recently honouring the women of Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Lola Dueñas, Yohana Cobo, Blanca Portillo). This kind of ensemble recognition is just one of the truly refreshing elements we love about Cannes.

They tend to spread the wealth across many of the films in competition. In fact, a couple of my following choices came from movies that may well have warranted a prize in other areas. Almost certainly so. Not to say these actresses were any less deserving. Although again not necessarily my all-time top five (I don’t think), it was way too much fun to pick these Best Actress winners as ones that have adored since I saw them, and have not left me since. Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy) is a great recent winner, and I’d like to add I would almost certainly have considered the excellent Marie-Josée Croze had I not selected The Barbarian Invasions in an earlier post. See, I am starting to sound like a Cannes jury member.

2001 – Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher)

Worthy Alternatives:
   Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!)
   Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)

As far as movies about the relationships between the music tutor and student are concerned, if Whiplash is still playing heavy on your mind, you really ought to go seek out Michael Haneke’s astoundingly brutal The Piano Teacher. A much harder slap in the face, I can tell you. Physically, mentally, sexually, Isabelle Huppert’s Erika is humiliated and brutalised, and much of it self-inflicted. The performance is, and the movie itself, tough-going to watch at times, but never does it lose your attention. Taking her second prize at Cannes, Huppert is worn-down and emotionally battered here, even from the opening scene. And she continues to deliver a raw and uncomfortably exceptional performance right through to the very end. Haneke would win the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon years later – guess who the Cannes jury president was?

2013 – Bérénice Bejo (The Past)

Worthy Alternatives:
   Adèle Exarchopoulos & Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Colour)
   Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant)


Without in any way intending to offend the beautiful Bérénice Bejo, she played it plain and simple in Asghar Farhadi’s near flawless The Past. So solid and sincere is her performance here, she is unrecognisable from the (also excellent) song-and-dance turn in the silent Oscar winner The Artist. Marie-Anne is not a particularly scary woman, but those men in her life (and her kids to a large extent) are walking on thin ice – she is weighed down by bitternesss, perhaps some buried guilt, not to mention the tension built from her recent and current life choices. You watch The Past, though, and want the pain to end for her. For all of them. Bejo is so authentic, such a grand presence in this grounded human story, you carry empathy for her, even in her coldest moments. This is not solely her film, in the acting stakes she is surrounded by some outstanding performers, but she more than plays her part.


1996 – Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies)

Worthy Alternatives:
   Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves)
   Frances McDormand (Fargo)

What a wreck Cynthia is, you might note while watching Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. Bleak and uncompromising, yes of course, this film is, but Brenda Blethyn carries with her the open wounds and tired legs of single motherhood in council estate England. It’s a brittle and important backdrop to the story of a woman, a bag of nerves in fact, coming to terms with the discovery the daughter she gave away at birth is a young black woman. We, the audience, partially feel the shock and social acclimatization that Cynthia seems to be going through, as she struggles to keep it together. This is engulfed later when brreaking the news to her already emotional, crumbling family. Blethyn is manic, warmly real, and utterly brilliant in every scene.


1997 – Kathy Burke (Nil by Mouth)

Worthy Alternatives:
   Robin Wright (She’s So Lovely)
   Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter)

It is no secret that Cannes juries over the years have been suckers for bleak British movies. And British actresses. The unforgettable Nil By Mouth is no exception. Written and directed by Gary Oldman, the chameleon actor deserved the plaudits for dragging us face first through the mud of domestic abuse. Everyone, too, was talking about the monstrous performance from Ray Winstone (many still say he was robbed here). I remember seeing the news that it was Kathy Burke who came away from the festival with the Best Actress prize for her remarkable turn as the battered wife Valerie. What a lot of people outside of the UK (and perhaps many of that year’s Cannes jury) will not have experienced is Burke’s comedy TV work – most notably the comic sketch shows she did with Harry Enfield. The prospect of seeing her in this kind of gritty big screen role was a hard contrast to imagine, but seeing it for myself blew me away. An impressive, true winner indeed.

1991 – Irène Jacob (The Double Life of Véronique)

Worthy Alternatives:
   Barbara Sukowa (Europa)
   Emmanuelle Béart (La Belle Noiseuse)

Personally speaking, Irène Jacob’s screen presence has more than once inspired my own creation on on-screen heroins in mt screenwriting. In The Double Life of Véronique she shows a range of performance (not unlike the brilliance on display in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red), whether it be the child-like hope of her singing or exploring ways to see the world, or the heavy sadness that somehow overcomes her throughout. She seems to be on the brink of joy or tears, we are not always sure which, and Jacob has the perfect face for such multi-emotional performance in a dual role. It is a tranquil, subtle piece of expressive, non-explosive acting. Kieślowski was renownded for bullying his own ability as a film-maker to convey exactly to the screen what was in his creative mind (not the only one to feel this way I suspect). With Jacob’s help here, and elsewhere, I can’t see what greater way he could have seen this.
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