To nobody’s great surprise, Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke carried off his second Palme d’Or at Cannes last month for Amour - the first being The White Ribbon (2009), which likewise had been a solid bookies’ favourite. Scheduled for UK release later in the year, this French-produced chamber-piece examines an elderly couple’s relationship in closely empathetical detail, specifically how it’s affected by the wife’s physical and mental deterioration.
When handing over the Palme – the first time a director has pulled off wins for back-to-back movies since Bille August in 1992 – jury-president Nanni Moretti singled out the performances of Gallic veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in the central roles. Indeed, were it not for Cannes protocol dictating that prizes should ideally be shared between competing films, it’s likely that Trintignant and Riva would have taken home the festival’s Best Actor and Best Actress prizes into the bargain. As it was, the near-universal popularity of Amour - while rendering the 22-runner Palme race something close to a one-horse affair – did have the by-product of throwing the acting-gong contests fascinatingly open.
Many forecast some degree of success for Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, which provided meaty roles for France’s La Vie en Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Belgium’s Matthias Schoenaerts. Rust and Bone, in which a double-amputee former killer-whale trainer (Cotillard) falls in love with a taciturn, emotionally-stunted bouncer-cum-bareknuckle-boxer (Schoenaerts), didn’t quite dazzle the Croisette in the manner of Audiard’s prison-drama A Prophet, which landed the festival’s Grand Prix (or runner-up prize) three years ago. But if anything its (somewhat self-consciously) gritty handling of melodramatic/romantic material gives it wider commercial prospect, and might yield further Academy attention for the busy, versatile Cotillard.
It’s also far from fanciful to nominate James Gandolfini as a long-range Best Supporting Actor candidate for his spectacular contributions to Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, the Australian director’s slightly underwhelming third feature after Chopper (2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Dominik works again with James/Ford leading-man Brad Pitt, here cast as an easy-going hitman hired as part of a Boston gangland feud, in a picture based – like Peter Yates’ seminal 1973 neo-noir The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Gandolfini has only a couple of scenes as a booze-hound skirt-chaser sub-contracted by Pitt’s character to carry out a tricky homicide, but so effortlessly dominates the screen as a repellently amoral slob that we’re reminded how neglectful cinema has been of the man destined to be known for his small-screen triumphs as Tony Soprano.
No less deserving of what would also be a first Oscar nomination is the perennially taken-for-granted Guy Pearce, the Australian shapeshifter most recently seen flexing his muscles in outer-space multiplex actioner Lockout. Over the last couple of years the Neighbours alumnus has charmed his way to an Emmy for his contribution to Mildred Pierce and slyly stole all of his scenes as Edward VIII in The King’s Speech. Essaying a rather different variation of 1930s male suave, he’s deliciously reptilian as a sharp-dressing, vicious FBI agent in John Hillcoat’s Lawless, first among equals in an ensemble drama celebrating the exploits of a Depression-era moonshining familyThe latest of Hillcoat’s collaborations with his fellow Aussie, minstrel-of-doom Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay as well as chipping in on the soundtrack), it’s a Deep South cousin of their 2005 Outback epic The Proposition - albeit with rather more hard-bitten humour amid the throat-slashings and bullet ballets – and, a little too besotted with its bygone cool, warranted the largely tepid reaction it provoked among Croisette denizens, Pearce’s sterling efforts notwithstanding.
In terms of critical hosannas, the sole rival to Haneke’s Amour was Leos Carax’ berserk comeback Holy Motors - two movies united only by their Parisian settings. An episodically zany trip – in all sense of the word – this belated followup to Carax’s POLA X (2000) features the elfin Denis Lavant essaying eleven roles (or rather aspects of the same protean character) as he journeys around the metropolis in a white limo. “The sound of hundreds of jaws collectively agape” was how one tweeter described reactions at the first press show, with Lavant’s hyperactive turn singled out for near-unanimous praise. Indeed, the puckish Carax quipped that if Lavant had been unavailable, he’d have offered the part to the original ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney (who died in 1930).
But with Moretti reportedly “hating” Holy Motors, the Best Actor trophy landed in the lap of Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt, a comeback-of-sorts for Thomas Vinterberg (who’s yet to come close to matching his 1998 masterpiece Festen. Mikkelsen, one of Europe’s most widely-admired performers, stars as a small-town chap unjustly accused of a paedophile crime, in a picture which looks set to capitalise on the ongoing cultural prominence of dark-toned ‘Scandi-noir‘ fare.
The Best Actress award proved a little easier to predict, being shared between Romanian pair Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan for Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills - the writer-director’s overwrought and overlong, religious-themed follow-up to 2007 Palme laureate 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Mungiu’s status as a Croisette favourite was confirmed by his taking the Best Screenplay prize for this 150-minute study of goings-on in an unorthodox Orthodox monastery. And while twentysomethings Stratan and Flutur coped well with the demands of a talky, contrived script, at least as worthy of attention was veteran Dana Tapalaga as the cluckingly well-meaning Mother Superior.
But of all the noteworthy performances at Cannes 2012 – and mention should be made of Edward Norton’s chipper Scout-master in Wes Anderson’s delightful Moonrise Kingdom, as well as Garrett Hedlund’s coltishly persuasive take on Neal Cassady in Walter Salles’ MOR On the Road - perhaps the most singularly delightful was that of Korean semi-unknown Yu Jungsang in Hong Sangsoo’s formally-intricate comedy In Another Country.
This comprises three discrete but thematically interlocking stories about three different French women named Anne (all played by Isabelle Huppert) whose sojourn in a seaside resort attracts the amorous attentions of a puppyishly eager lifeguard. Yu’s halting English and boisterous body-language make for an amusing contrast with the willowy grace of Huppert’s Anne(s), and his guitar-strumming delivery of an impromptu serenade (inside a poky beach-tent, no less) provoked tears of helpless mirth even among the Cannes press-gang’s battle-hardened regulars.
June 5th, 2012
written for Tribune magazine