Cannes 2012: THR's Film Critic Todd McCarthy Reflects on Festival Award Winners

Cannes 2012: Michael Haneke Wins for Amour
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Cannes jury got it pretty right with Palme d'Or winner "Amour," from Michael Haneke.

Eschewing the extreme for the humanistic, the Cannes Film Festival jury headed by Nanni Moretti got it pretty right this year, distributing awards to several of the deserving films and, by general consent, making the spot-on choice for the Palme d’Or with Michael Haneke’s Amour.

In fact, it’s been awhile since the ovation for the final award of the evening in the Grand Theatre Lumiere has seemed quite so intense and prolonged. This was due in part to the general feeling on behalf of a film that so lucidly and penetratingly examines the final stages of life but also because the award was seen to be shared by the Austrian director’s two superb leading players, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who had startlingly been denied acting prizes some minutes before but then took the stage with Haneke and spoke to the crowd after he did.

This marks the second Palme for Haneke in four years and also places the film, which co-stars Isabelle Huppert, at the front of the pack of European films heading into the fall season.

The other big winner was Cristian Mungiu’s equally serious, more demanding and somewhat less fulfilling Beyond the Hills, honored for screenplay and its two young actresses, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. For what it’s worth, this and the Haneke film led the critics’ polls in Cannes, while the winner of the Grand Prix, Matteo Garrone’s Reality from Italy, ranked near the bottom.

Mads Mikkelsen’s victory as best actor for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt was momentarily shocking, as everyone assumed Trintignant in this category was the biggest shoo-in of the evening. But after all was said and done, the Danish actor’s triumph was viewed as a way to honor a film that seems to have been better received by Europeans than by American critics.

The most audience-friendly title in the competition, Ken Loach’s The Angels' Share, happily won the Prix du Jury, and it was thrilling to see Benh Zeitlin, director of the superb Sundance discovery Beasts of the Southern Wild, take the stage to accept the Camera d’Or for best first film in any Cannes section. French critics often are reluctant to embrace films they don’t discover themselves, so the Cannes reaction to this film has been encouraging.

The most out-there winner was Carlos Reygadas’ initially staggering, ultimately perplexing Post tenebras lux. Embraced to varying degrees by critics, it’s a film of extraordinary images and ideas, even if its meanings remain elusive and arguable. But it’s far from a bad thing for the jury to have taken note of this ever-more adventurous Mexican auteur.

The big loser, if there is one, was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the provocation of the festival and the film that divided partisans and naysayers more sharply than any other; this is not a work to inspire compromise among critics or jurors. It undoubtedly provided the festival with a much-needed jolt and created more debate than any other film here, but a major prize for it would have created a small furor.

Also going home empty-handed were Alain Resnais, Jacques Audiard and the makers of the much-touted North American entries On the Road, Cosmopolis, Lawless, Mud, The Paperboy and Killing Them Softly. None set the town on fire and clearly can’t count upon widespread critical support down the line. The feeling of letdown about these films running from vague to severe created the feeling of a mixed-bag festival, but it was still a lively Cannes, with plenty of spirited debate, no nasty Lars von Trier-type controversy and an upbeat feeling at the end that the right film won.