May 21, 2012 5:12 pm

Cannes Film Festival

Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ and Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Beyond the Hills’ are both prime candidates for the Golden Palm

The Palais des Festivals has been frighteningly packed this year. On some mornings not even a fully accredited FT critic, eloquently waving his badge, can enter the filled-to-bursting Salle du Cinema for the 8.30 screening. The place is full at 8.10 and we lot – conscientious breakfasters but hardly latecomers – are diverted into the overflow cinema near the beach, another pleasuredrome for the picture-mad.

Why the massed “bums on seats”? It must be the weather: wet, cold, windy and lashing people indoors. Or maybe it is the late-effect stimulus of last year’s festival, by general consent a humdinger. Or perhaps it is a last hurrah for the eurozone, frantic or heroic, as souls and bodies pile in to this last, true, indefatigable Satyricon on the Med.

On paper the programme looked as good as ever. The arthouse A-listers were here: four prior Palm winners (Haneke, Kiarostami, Loach and Romania’s Cristian Mungiu), joined by the likes of Audiard, Salles, Reygadas and Wes Anderson. If we haven’t had too many alpha movies yet, the programme is less than halfway, though some critics impetuously eulogised two early shows: Audiard’s Rust and Bone and Anderson’s Moonlight Kingdom. The second, a comedy-charmer about bosky islands, Boy Scouts and runaway love, opens internationally this week and opened the festival itself. It provided the blaze of red-carpet celebrity we needed: Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Uncle Bill Murray. (Loved his blinding candy-striped jacket and ill-matching trews.)

Rust and Bone was a bit like it sounds: something off the scavenger’s cart but skilfully presented by Audiard (The Beat My Heart Skipped, A Prophet), who cannot make an ill-crafted film. Marion Cotillard is the whale trainer mutilated in a marine park mishap. Legs amputated at the knees, she can be saved only by the love of tough, unsentimental street fighter Matthias Schoenaerts, who performs for violence voyeurs when not moonlighting as a bar bouncer or illegal security-camera fixer. (He helps superstore managers spy on lazy workers.) He is lower-depths; she is upwardly mobile in a literal and sometimes graphic sense. The fearless sex scenes incorporate digitised disability. The film is both raw and sentimental, which will be the best of both worlds for some, for others slightly like reading a Mills and Boon novel done over by Mickey Spillane or Sacher-Masoch.

The medium-good movies have marched off the assembly line. Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle from Egypt meditates on the aftermath of Tahrir Square in the story of a plucky PR girl (Mena Shalaby), voicing her fears of Islamist misogyny while romancing a radicalisation-ready horseman who rues his role in the Mubarak charge on protesters. Matteo Garrone’s Reality, from Italy, is a bitty comedy – its best bits amusing – about a Big Brother auditionee carried away by dreams of fame. In The Hunt Danish ex-Dogme filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg portrays a divorced loner (Mads Mikkelsen) wrongly accused of child abuse. By the end, an initially mordant plot has blunted its teeth on melodrama. Alain Resnais’ Vous N’Avez Encore Rien Vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) is another chunk of boulevard metaphysics – here Anouilh-inspired – from a once-notable 89-year-old whose cinema now drifts towards the stagebound.

My favourite Competition film to date is Beyond the Hills, written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, who won the Golden Palm in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. A boo or two broke out at the end of the press show, always a good sign. Someone was rubbed up the wrong way by this abrasive, powerful, ambitiously long movie (150 minutes) about a Romanian girl returning from Germany to re-befriend the orphanage chum (Cosmina Stratan), now a nun, who wants to impose more distance than the emotionally needy heroine (Cristina Flutur) seeks.

She stays in the bare, comfortless Orthodox monastery, chafing at rules, until the cry of the heart can no longer be silenced. The Father, unfortunately, mistakes that cry for the devil’s sound. Evil spirits must be cast out, rebellious hearts disciplined. The sometimes unbelievable intolerance of age-old belief systems is explored and exposed. That the film, which ends tragically, is based on true events is almost as chilling as the film itself.

Scarcely less powerful is Michael Haneke’s Amour, another punter’s favourite for Golden Palm. The “love” depicted is between two elderly flat-dwellers, a married couple played by veteran actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The years, far from falling away, seem to have piled on top of these one-time luminaries of New French Cinema. Makeup helps. Riva, 53 years after Hiroshima Mon Amour, ages herself into a harrowing portrait of dementia-prone frailty.

The two tend each other into the twilight; or he tends her, after she has suffered two strokes. The apartment littered with decaying possessions echoes with their memories, though sometimes briefly strident with visitors declaiming their care and anguish. (Isabelle Huppert is superb as the daughter married to a jet-setting musician.) In this spacious, haunted cocoon, the couple enter that poignant realm where love continues while becoming almost impossible to convert to useful kindness. The ending is at once quietly devastating and mysteriously, subtly optimistic.

Mark your Cannes betting card with Riva’s name for Best Actress. Other standouts in this category have been both lead actresses in Beyond the Hills, Cotillard in Rust and Bone and Huppert in Amour (soon to double, or quadruple, her chances by playing three characters in the South Korean entry In Another Country). On screen, at least, there is great work by women in this festival. So pay no regard to the nonsensical fuss made by some commentators about the lack of female directors in the Competition. Would these commentators please name a woman-directed film as good as the male-directed films chosen? If they can’t, where is their argument? Let artistic quality dictate the Cannes selection – now and always – and not tokenist criteria of gender, race or any other group attributes.

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