Haneke’s genius gains its reward

“Love will set you free.” It sounds more convincing in Cannes, where the Palme d’Or victory for Michael Haneke’s deserving Amour will ensure the film’s release into a thousand world arthouses, than in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Britain’s so-titled love song took next-to-bottom place in the Eurovision singathon last weekend.

Genius will out; genius will gain its reward. The Austrian director’s formidable French film about the defiant mutual love of an elderly couple facing death won him a second Palme in three years. His 2009 success was The White Ribbon, barely less bleak a picture of human existence. Twelve years before that, Haneke made Funny Games, the unfunniest film in history. (He remade it in the US in 2008.) He does not take life or art lightly. He does make them unforgettable, often, on screen.

Amour’s stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva were expected to carry off the acting prizes. But the jury led by Italian film-maker Nanni Moretti divided the Best Actress honour between Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, the two stars of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, a sternly brilliant (even Haneke-esque) Romanian film about tragic events in a monastery. Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen, the one-time Bond villain, took Best Actor for his divorced man accused of child abuse in Tomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.

Grim subjects? Grim films? Perhaps it was to lighten up the list that Team Moretti gave the runner-up Grand Prize to Reality, a Naples-set comedy about a delusional Big Brother auditionee. Most critics barely gave Matteo Garrone’s film the time of day. Some critics, including this one, spent much of the long, meandering movie consulting the time of day. The Cannes judges’ ex aequo folly was a Best Director prize to Carlos Reygadas, whose Post Tenebras Lux was a portentous mess from a previously gifted Mexican director. In contrast, Ken Loach’s Jury Prize for The Angels’ Share was merited recognition for a modest, good-hearted human comedy.

It was a tough Cannes, but we veterans got through it. Rain came daily. Umbrellas were mistral fodder. The middle of the festival, like some ghastly whirlpool, sucked us into the ghastliest films. Then there was all the champagne we were forced to drink. And the stars we had to meet . . .

All right: this festival has its moments, even in an iffy year. And they don’t all happen away from the films or events we have to watch. Celebrity talks are a feature of present-day Cannes and there was a marvellous one – witty, richly detailed, full of Golden Age anecdotes – from the 97-year-old English-born Hollywood actor Norman Lloyd. Lloyd started his screen career by falling off the Statue of Liberty for Hitchcock in the 1942 Saboteur. He befriended or acted for Chaplin, Welles, Renoir and Brecht. Judged by this showing, he may be the world’s best movie business raconteur.

The films in the Competition flickered on. To prove that spring is the cuckoo season even in the south of France, the competition ended with two US movies moving in on virtually the same nest. On the penultimate day, Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy cleared space for its chirpy brood of stars (Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron), enacting a cockamamie Deep South script about love, death and murder. The film clamours loudly: all noise and no substance. The plot has the subtlety of a tabloid front page, with extra dialogue by Harold Robbins.

Next and last day came Jeff Nichols’s contrasting Mud, which kicked out The Paperboy to claim space for its star-enhanced southern adventure. In Mississippi two boys help an island-hiding fugitive from the law (McConaughey again) dodge his pursuers, build a boat, seek his girl (Reese Witherspoon) and give the baddies their climactic comeuppance. A children’s movie with optional grown-up resonance, it is terrific. Think of Huckleberry Finn; multiply it by the kidult classics of R.L. Stevenson. Nichols previously made Take Shelter. That film’s star, Michael Shannon, enriches a supporting cast (Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker) that gives strength in depth to a richly wrought fable of childhood and the coming of awareness.

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