Palm, fringe and just rewards

Image of Nigel Andrews

Justice was done at Cannes. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a sombre, hauntingly visionary film about the fall of innocence, set in a Protestant German village on the eve of the first world war, won the Golden Palm. It deserves not just the prize but the attention and international attendances that will follow. This is the kind of cinema Cannes exists to nurture: complex, subtle, challenging and richly imagined by an Austrian filmmaker whose work – Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché (Hidden) – has seldom set out to spread jollity among the popcorn classes.

Over 2½ hours, not a frame is wasted. Nor is a single character superfluous in the cast of men, women and children confronting mysterious atrocities in a hamlet where the “old ways” – a notionally endearing concept Haneke lambasts as a concealment for intolerance, religious fanaticism and domestic or parental cruelty – are about to reach conflagration or purgation in the events of 1914-18. As I noted in my last Cannes report, the glacial black and white photography makes the movie resemble a Carl Dreyer film reshaped by a horror master: Day of Wrath meets Children of the Damned.

The jury, led by Isabelle Huppert, was embarrassed by riches this year. The good news was that Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, a dazzlingly intelligent French prison drama, won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize and acting awards went to Charlotte Gainsbourg, honest and impassioned amid the grand guignol of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, and Christoph Waltz, waltzing away with his scenes as a genially venal SS officer in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

The bad news was that Pedro Almodóvar, Alain Resnais and Jane Campion left empty-handed after bringing work with which, in an average year, they might have palmed the top prize. They were denied even a Best Director award, conferred instead on the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza for his over-the-top-and-then-some police melodrama Kinatay (Butchered). Also queuing up for guerdon was Britain’s Andrea Arnold, whose picture of a troubled teen, Fish Tank, won her a second Jury Prize three years after her Cannes debut, Red Road.

After its glorious middle phase, the festival went into free fall. The worst, it seemed, had been kept till last as one tailspinner after another hit the Mediterranean. Most of these should never have been allowed off the ground, let alone permitted the transglobal trips required by their plots. Enter the Void by France’s Gaspar Noé and Map of the Sounds of Tokyo by Portugal’s Isabel Coixet were both made in Tokyo, the first a 2¾-hour sex-and-drugs melodrama tritely scripted and pretentiously conceived, the second an anaemic tale of love and loss. Coixet’s film needed the reality infusion of its director’s homescape rather than a city of subtitles and tourist neon. Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage had a converse trajectory. The Taiwan director travelled to Paris, where his Zen surrealism goes Gallic and gaga. Sample ingredients include Fanny Ardant, a lost deer, Leonardo’s portrait of John the Baptist and a sexed-up dance number in an abattoir.

Some of us fled to the fringe. The Directors Fortnight was a meet-and-greet of the famous (Coppola, Jim Carrey) and the unheard-of, though more will surely be heard of the 20-year-old actor-filmmaker Xavier Dolan. His J’ai Tué Ma Mère was an attention-grabbing debut dealing darkly but wittily with Oedipal rage and murder.

Back at the business end of the Croisette the Un Certain Regard sideshow nestles next to the main competition, albeit in the eunuchoid knowledge that its winning film will never quite experience the orgasmic rapture of a Golden Palm victory. Instead Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth from Greece won a small, jury-voted scroll. The delectably deadpan plot about three siblings held hostage by their parents – greater specificity would be a spoiler – is a treat. At my screening, audience enjoyment grew with the evolving storyline, funnier and more appalling as the mysteries are opened up.

So Cannes 2009 was the best of festivals, the worst of festivals, the most unsummarisable of festivals. Never again, surely, will so many major directors be included in one competition programme. Never again will a bunch of wartorn critics retreat after seeing history made, knowing that, although some in the world will still call them “inglourious basterds”, they were at the front, they saw the action and they brought back the spoils. Or at least the hot news of them.

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