Cannes 2012 Critic's Notebook: Festival Slowly Improves During Week
After a tepid start, Competition lineup is showing signs of life with Michael Haneke's "Amour," Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt."
Almost as if festival director Thierry Fremaux had coyly scheduled some of the weaker Competition entries at the beginning so the festival could been seen to gradually improve as the days wore on, the 65th Cannes Film Festival began getting serious over the weekend with weighty entries by the venerable likes of Haneke and Mungiu, with Kiarostami and Resnais hot on their heels.
For some, the festival really got started with Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s atheistic acid bath administered to the devoutly religious. For me, however, things finally kicked into gear with Michael Haneke’s Love, an unflinching yet supremely elegant examination of the final stages of life, unerringly acted by French greats Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
Actually, the festival began quite reasonably -- if not with home runs, at least with doubles in the form of Wes Anderson’s light yet aesthetically rigorous Moonrise Kingdom, which opens shortly in the United States. Even more of the moment was Jacques Audiard’s surprisingly conventional but resourcefully made and very well acted Rust & Bone, which opened in France day-and-date with the festival showing.
But then came two bummers in Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle and Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love.
John Hillcoat’s quite watchable but dour Prohibition crime melodrama Lawless has an awfully attractive cast portraying a bunch of hillbillies and, for my money, could have used a belt of strong moonshine to shake off its self-seriousness and provide a jolt of down-home, hee-hawing, anti-Yankee attitude.
To some who had all but given up on Thomas Vinterberg after waiting 14 years for a worthy follow-up to Festen, The Hunt at least provides evidence of an alert and dynamic directorial hand. The witch-hunt basis of the story is woefully familiar — gossip, group-think and a willingness to think the worst of someone combine to ruin the life of a good man, embodied in an outstanding performance by Mads Mikkelsen. Visually, the film is excitingly alive, making even its most malign plot developments worth getting past.
Mungiu’s films, up to now, have rewarded their various difficulties — length, despair, pain — with endings that make it all pay off and then some. On this score alone, Beyond the Hills doesn’t provide the insight, enlightenment or sense of revelation the story of modern convent dwellers would seem to demand. It is beautifully composed and rigorously rendered, to be sure, and I have heard estimable critics invoke such landmarks of religious cinema as The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath as points of reference. But, in my view, such comparisons only put the ultimate shortcomings of the new film into more stark relief.
By contrast, Haneke has accomplished everything he set out to do in Amour, a film that will register deeply with anyone who has observed at close quarters the mental and physical deterioration of a family member or loved one. With Haneke, the specter of sentimentality is never going to be an issue; in its place is a watchful intelligence, an exacting choice of incident, an unerring sense of l’image juste, in depicting an intelligent, responsive and responsible old man’s relationship with his increasingly ailing wife. Set virtually entirely in the couple’s well-appointed apartment, the film has moments when it appears that Haneke may be playing some of his old dramatic tricks. But, no, it’s a sincere, bracingly astringent work, shot through with an awareness of how impossible it is for anyone to prepare for, or truly know how to handle, the gradual disappearance of a person one loves and knows so well.