The Cannes programme had a strong US showing, but it rewarded the industry’s auteurs when it came to handing out the prizes, and there were still several surprises amid the hustle of the circus,
AS EVER, MANY visitors to the Cannes Film Festival moved through the busy spaces seemingly unaware that some sort of competition was taking place. This festival is as much a place to do deals as it is to watch high-brow movies. The news from the dealing floors was relatively positive. By mid-week, Variety magazine was reporting that business was steady, if not spectacular. One mischievously hopes that – in acknowledgement of sheer brazenness – the good people from the Panama Film Commission did particularly well. A huge poster on the way into the Cannes Market attempted to sell that country as a double for New York, Tahiti and, yes, Ireland. The relevant photo of an elegant sunlit arch could not, however, have looked less like a snap of our own less flamboyant nation.
Meanwhile, the official competition bubbled on energetically. The standard, if not as high as last year’s event, was well up to scratch. The festival’s decision to include a swathe of American-based pictures delivered mixed results. The stars were certainly out in force: Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Nicole Kidman all turned out to promote their pictures. But the Anglophone films didn’t quite deliver the artistic goods. Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy got trashed. Walter Salles’s On the Road left many cold. John Hillcoat’s Lawless was only so-so.
The festival ended up making the case for the old-school art picture. Sure enough, when the prizes were announced on Sunday, none of the transatlantic interlopers was anywhere to be seen. By winning a second Palme d’Or, Michael Haneke, director of the near-flawless Amour, now finds himself appointed official Cannes royalty. Only six film-makers have previously managed that feat and few could argue with the Austrian doomsayer’s induction into the cabal. Amour has an extraordinary, somewhat forbidding purity to it: following a brief prologue, the picture, dealing with the death of an elderly woman, remains confined within one (admittedly rather roomy) Paris apartment. It requires absolute confidence in one’s abilities to attempt such a rigorously uncluttered project. Everybody involved proves up to the task. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing the stricken woman and her solid husband, move only the necessary muscles as they drift towards despair. Even the coldness of the lighting forbids sentimentality.
If one was being obstreperous, one might grumpily note that Amour is precisely the sort of film that Cannes watchers expect to triumph at the event. It is grim. It is short on humour. True enough. But, in a cinematic world overwhelmed with online enthusiasts raving about The Avengers, it remains cheering that the media pays attention to a competition that treasures this class of angular introspection. Still sharp at 70, Haneke could yet become the first director to grab a third Palme d’Or.
It should also be noted that Nanni Moretti and his fellow jurors proved very much at home to less terrifying material. Ken Loach grabbed the Prix de Jury, the third prize, for The Angels’ Share. It is certainly the British director’s frothiest piece; in it, unemployed Scots hatch a scheme to steal an expensive malt whiskey. The film could be viewed as the first ever Ealing comedy to take a major prize at Cannes.
Moretti, an acclaimed Italian director, managed to put the Grand Prix, second prize, the way of Matteo Garrone’s relatively unthreatening Reality. The tale of a fishmonger who enters the Italian version of Big Brother, the picture is unlikely to be confused with The Seventh Seal.
Those diversions noted, the festival belonged to big, serious pictures. They don’t get much bigger (well, longer anyway) or less frivolous than Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. A previous winner of the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Romanian risked moving into parody mode with the bleak tale of a bleak woman who goes bleakly crazy while staying in a bleak convent surrounded by bleak hills.
Mungiu’s ability to stay at a psychological distance allows the story to develop in a believable, unforced manner. After two hours and 40 minutes, you feel you’ve deserved your pain au chocolat. That film deservedly won best script and, jointly to Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, the prize for best actress.
Then there was Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux. Good grief. Two hours of sex parties, exploding heads and animal abuse shot in narrow-ratio with a lens that appears to be malfunctioning at its edges, the Mexican picture generated the most vigorous booing of the 10 days. You can really turn against the Cannes pack when they get in this mood. It’s akin to being trapped in an abattoir before the man with the stun gun arrives (if only). Yet the jury gave Reygadas the best director prize.
They should be celebrated for offering such a defiant “sod you” to the herd. Who cares if the film isn’t really all that good?
So what was unfairly ignored by the jury? Well, few punters had many positive expectations of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. After all, the director of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf has been in exile for a decade. But the defiantly crazy picture, in which Denis Lavant takes on several mad personae, proved to be bizarrely funny and endlessly imaginative. One could feel a cult forming itself in the ether.
Away from the main competition, playing at a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight, Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s superb follow-up to the magnificent Kill List, told a hilarious tale of English caravan enthusiasts murdering their way about twee tourist destinations. Now, there’s a novelty worth savouring.
That’s the joy of Cannes. There’s something interesting happening in even the most obscure corners. You can (and should) gripe about the self-importance of the place. But we’d be a lot worse off without it.