Cannes Film Festival 2012: half-time report

Dave Calhoun reports on the hits, misses and a shocking new masterpiece from Michael Haneke

Beyond the Hills Beyond the Hills

The Olympic Games of cinema, Cannes is where the titans of bold, mould-breaking cinema come to flex their muscles. This year’s competition of 22 directors from around the globe vying for the Palme d’Or is the usual mix of auteur godfathers (Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke), much-loved regulars (Ken Loach, David Cronenberg) and Cannes-nurtured younger filmmakers back for a second pop at the prize (Matteo Garrone, Sergei Loznitsa). There’s also an usually high number of American films in the running: six, including John Hillcoat’s bootlegging thriller ‘Lawless’ and ‘Mud’ from Jeff Nichols (‘Take Shelter’).

As the festival reached its mid-point over the weekend, the competition was beginning to show vital signs after a slow start. A few films had flopped or disappointed. Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is worthy of the festival’s opening slot, but ‘After the Battle’ from Egypt’s Yousry Nasrallah – set during the uprisings in Cairo last year – is a mess. It was filmed in the eye of a storm, and it shows. (Its presence also weakens the festival’s rebuff to criticism that there are no women directors in competition this year. The line that the festival selects films by quality, not context, rings a little hollow after seeing ‘After the Battle’.)

Jacques Audiard’s ‘Rust and Bone’ is a film of great style but it’s also meandering and inert. In 2009, Audiard won the Grand Prix, Cannes’s second prize, for his prison drama ‘A Prophet’: his follow-up is a stuttering romance about an emotionally stunted wanderer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his strained friendship with a woman (Marion Cotillard) who loses both of her legs while performing with orcas at a Côte d’Azur theme park. Audiard is on top, muscular form here as a stylist, offering moments of visual brilliance, painting in blood, sweat and tears. His cast, too, strains for greatness. But the film as a whole felt phoney, relying on implausible plot turns and leaning too heavily on Audiard’s fascination with the gutter – when the characters and relationship at its heart could have done with a lot more love.

Amour Amour

Two films stand out for being strong but limited in ambition, as if crying out for another layer of complexity. Matteo Garrone scooped the Grand Prix in 2008 for ‘Gomorrah’ and his ‘Reality’ is another Neapolitan tale, this time of Luciano (Aniello Arena, in real life an actor with a prison troupe, currently serving a long stretch inside), a spirited, working-class family man obsessed with becoming a contestant on the Italian version of ‘Big Brother’. It’s a satire on misplaced ideals and a culture that values fame and easy wins over what really matters: family, love and happiness. It has a grand sense of scale and a wicked eye for the creepy, best captured in the character of Enzo, a former ‘Big Brother’ contestant who parrots the catchphrase ‘Never give up!’ with a big, false smile. But ‘Reality’ lacks the intimacy to make us really understand Luciano’s position and rapidly loses its bite.

Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Hunt’ is also a qualified success. The Danish director of ‘Festen’ is back in Cannes with his best film in many years: the story of a kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s wrongly accused of abusing his pupils. Mikkelsen gives a strong performance but the unsettling sense of claustrophobia and paranoia are worn down by implausibilities.

There have been two exceptional films so far: Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Beyond the Hills’ and Austrian director Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’. The former, from the Romanian director who won the Palme d’Or in 2007 with ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’, is a mysterious story of religious oppression and moral corruption that centres on two young women who grew up together in an orphanage. One is now a nun, and when the other comes to visit her from Germany, she’s drawn into a situation of increasing danger – events stoked by fear and ignorance. It’s a strange, compelling film.

Haneke’s ‘Amour’ is simply a masterpiece, rising head and shoulders above everything at Cannes so far. This is Haneke’s first film since the Palme d’Or-winning ‘The White Ribbon’ in 2009 and it’s an intimate, Paris-set drama about an elderly couple, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, dealing with her sudden illness. Haneke explodes the myth of death as a public event, something to gather around, something to weep and emote over. Here, impending death turns the apartment in which most of the film unfolds into a fortress. Haneke fearlessly faces the realities of sickness – but his mission is not simply to present a realistic portrait of the end, even though that’s part of the process. More than that, he explores the emotions and instincts felt on both sides by this couple – pride, despair, impending loss, empathy and its limits. The effect is devastating.