Coen brothers: Cannes jury marries art and entertainment | Film | DW | 13.05.2015
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Coen brothers: Cannes jury marries art and entertainment

They've proven raw entertainment can also be artistic. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen emody the spirit of Cannes, and are tasked with selecting the winners of this year's Palme d'Or.

The Coen brothers are surrounded by an unparalleled community of international fans. Their popularity, however, is a paradox: Their work stands both for modern American entertainment and for European art film.

The ability to unite serious art with superficial fun is exactly what makes the siblings, who've been in the business for three decades, an ideal choice to head the Festival de Cannes jury.

Coen brothers at the 2011 Berlinale, Copyright: Markus Schreiber/AP/dapd

The Coen brothers have attended the Berlinale several times

Perhaps their capability to harmonize has something to do with the fact that they tend to work very closely together. Joel is frequently named as director, Ethan as screenwriter, but their cooperation is so intermingled that it's usually unclear who did what.

While Joel studied film production in New York, Ethan was a philosophy major at Princeton University. But even knowing that does not necessarily help draw a clear line between their work.

Together the siblings have raked in four Oscars, almost a dozen Academy Award nominations, the Palme d'Or (1991 for "Barton Fink"), and two awards for directing in Cannes (including one for "Fargo" in 1996). At the same time, their movies tend to be box-office hits as well, easily recouping production costs.

Film still from Inside Llewyn Davis

"Inside Llewyn Davis" was shown in Cannes two years ago

The Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" was responsible for three of their Oscars trophies. The Texas ballad on drugs, murder and a crazed killer contained spectacularly violent scenes appealing to a public that tended to avoid their calmer works like the autobiographical "A Serious Man" or the comedy-drama "Inside Llewyn Davis."

The human experience on screen

The Coens grew up in an academic Jewish-American family. Their father was an economics professor, their mother taught art history. Their background has largely influenced them.

They clearly know what it takes to make a buck in the commercial film business. But their protagonists tend to be artfully created with deep psychological facets.

Film still from The Big Lebowski, Copyright: imago/EntertainmentPictures

"The Big Lebowski" one of the Coens' biggest successes

Films such as "Barton Fink," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" or "The Man Who Wasn't There" tell absurd, dramatic stories with an almost enigmatic sense of humor and a fine sense of irony. Among the protagonists are quite a few strange and whimsical characters.

But the Coens always maintain a balance between wit and satire, seriousness and psychology. The characters are not ridiculous, yet they make people laugh. They are made fun of - but always out a lot of love.

The Coens love to quote from film history. Their works are full of innuendos hinting at American genre films, particularly film noir. Their debut, "Blood Simple" in 1984, made use of prototypes from the 40s and 50s, films by Howard Hawks or John Huston, and novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Film still from A Serious Man, Copyright: TOBIS Film Kino film

"A Serious Man" was a stroke of genius in 2009

Those who look for cultural references in the Coens' works will find them, but their films work just as well without dwelling on the meta-level.

In the Cannes jury, they'll be joined in the next few days by actresses Sophie Marceau and Sienna Miller and directors including Xavier Dolan and Guillermo del Toro. But, with 17 films under their collective belt, it's likely that the brothers will rely on their own judgment.

They know Canne inside out. Not less than seven of their films celebrated their premiere at the Croisette. Film fans can look forward to May 24, when Joel and Ethan Coen will take the stage to announce: "And the winner is…"

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