I left Cannes Saturday in the late afternoon and spent a day in Belfast before returning home Sunday and subsequently did not learn of the award winners until that early evening.
Michael Haneke joined some pretty rarified company by winning his second Palme d’Or with his rigorous, plaintive and often devastating Amour. (Not even Francis Ford Coppola, in his seventies heyday, won for back-to-back titles.) A meditation on love and desperation, the movie examines the inconsolable grief visited upon a bourgeois Parisian couple undone by the elderly wife’s slow, irrevocable progression toward death.
I realize that probably reveals too much. Haneke’s prologue eliminates any suspense, yielding a highly subjective flashback structure told almost entirely from the point of view of the husband, Jean-Louis Trintignant. He’s coping, not well, with his wife’s physical and emotional dissolution. The wife, named Anne, is played by the great Emmanuelle Riva.
Interestingly enough, the movie starts out similar to Leos Carax’ Holy Motors, as the couple are shown, from a reverse angle, in long shot as part of the audience at a classical concert performed by Anne’s former protégé. It’s a terrific moment, formal in the strictest sense though also sharp and telling in what it says about the two, their own prodigious gifts, their "artistic value." Haneke also crystallizes what is lost when moments later, Anne suddenly freezes during an apparently normal breakfast sequence.
The opening suggests a movie about watching or being observed. Suddenly, two dynamic, intelligent and spirited people are transformed, in ways rarely admirable, by illness and breakdown. After Anne suffers a series of related strokes that paralyze her body and deny the fullness of her voice, Georges struggles valiantly to maintain some aspect of her humanity and dignity.
The interesting emotional consequence is Georges’ suddenly exaggerated isolation and extreme solitude; he becomes barricaded in the labyrinth of his own refined and immaculate apartment. He also becomes despotic, with his own daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and the medical personnel he hires to help care for his wife.
Also, the opening revelation powerfully moves the film away from pondering the what and instead shifts the conversation to why and how. Haneke is drawn to and tasked with exploring human behavior. In the past, the pervasive violence, the diagrammatic construction that cancelled out any chance of spontaneity or openness has opened up and finally synthesized his considerable formal talents to emotionally resonant stories.
In the past five or six years, Cache, White Ribbon and Amour achieve a depth and sureness of feeling that clarifies his ideas and preoccupations without abusing it.
In many respects, the jury and its president, Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, went the safe, uncomplicated route with the Haneke. Cannes has many masters, the art film firmament, the international marketplace, and the gallery of stars. The other prizes were tougher to get a read on. Some are easy to protest, but then again, I was not there, in the proceedings.
Italian director Matteo Garrone won the Grand Prize, or runner-up, with Reality, about the strangely escalating delusion experienced by Neapolitan fishmonger whose obsession with appearing on the Italian edition of “Big Brother,” unmoors him. Initially, Garrone more than equals the excitement his previous film Gomorrah, especially visually. The early passages, like a spellbinding opening of a lavish wedding the director renders through some dazzling hand-held camera movements, are coolly electric and insinuating.
Aniello Arena is weirdly entrancing as the lead, his jittery movements matching his stolid, blockish intensity. About forty minutes in, the rhythm turns sluggish and repetitive and Garrone runs out of new ideas. The bravura filmmaking is rarely tethered to a psychological realism capable of pushing the material into a richer dramatic vein. It plays like an Italian King of Comedy, but the pathos and brittle social portrait are sadly absent.
The most accomplished competition title, Cristian Mungiu’s Bressonian study of damaged faith, Beyond the Hills, won two prizes. The former Palme laureate won for best script and his two female leads, Cristina Flutur and Cosmita Stratan, shared the acting prize. Alina (Flutur), a German service worker, is repatriated with Voichita (Stratan), a novice in a Orthodox church, in the severe, almost medieval Romanian countryside. The conflict covers the clash over possession of Voichita, the participants the still fixated Alina and the priest.
At one-hundred and fifty-seven minutes, it was easily the longest film. I savored pretty much every minute, especially the slow, almost sensual intensity and the bracing physical immediacy of the actors.
Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas won the directing prize for his fourth feature, the experimental and almost unclassifiable Post Tenebras Lux. Playful and hypnotic for about forty-five minutes before it turns monotonous and punishing, I was in and out of consciousness watching it, alternately energized, bored and apathetic. I loved how he played with space and movement at the start, but the second half I found curiously slapdash in its construction.
This year’s competition was loaded with former Palme laureates: Haneke, Mungiu, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach. I am generally open to the output of Loach, notwithstanding the slightness or smug didacticism of his recent output. I missed the early screenings of his latest, The Angels’ Share, heard passable things and caught up with it later in the festival. The prizes are always pretty self-explanatory, except for the Jury Prize. That has become a catch all category to honor less than scintillating work.
The Loach is the latest and perhaps more egregious example of former winners receiving something of a pass. It’s a bifurcated film, the first part tracking the nasty and vicious story of an unemployed Glasgow young adult. This truculent youth softened by his newfound identity as a father, he undergoes (rather unconvincingly) yet another transformation, through a heroically patient adult sponsor, into a whiskey connoisseur who deftly orchestrates an unorthodox robbery. The social conscious problem drama about the lingering devastating of poverty and unemployment devolves into an agreeable caper comedy easy to take though easily forgotten.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen captured the best acting prize for his passive, desiccated role of a wrongly accused pedophile in Thomas Vinterberg’s comeback movie, The Hunt. It’s an interior and scrupulous performance, naked in its vulnerability though familiar in the particulars. If I had a ballot, I’d have thrown my lot behind Denis Lavant’s shape-shifting, singular work as the change artist in Holy Motors. For reasons not readily apparent, the jury had little patience for the Carax.
Turkish filmmaker L. Rezan Yesilbas won the short film prize for his excellent Silent, a period work about the Turkish government’s political harassment of the Kurdish ethnic minority. I first met the radiant Kurdish actress Belcim Bilgin seven years ago at Cannes when she appeared in another competition feature. In her note perfect part, she sharply conveys the desperation and heartbreak of the country’s terror campaign.
The quiet, searing moment as she visits her jailed husband and the surreptitious exchange between the two provided a haunting, indelible moment.