The Americans and the French choked -- and much of world cinema failed to show up -- but the requisite shocks were delivered, and everyone agreed the right film took the top prize.
From the American point of view, it was a washout. For high-art cinephiles, there was sporadic elation surrounded by partly deflated auteurist balloons. And for those demanding astonishment above all, there were two or three orgasms to be had.
On paper, the Americans looked locked and loaded heading into the Cannes Film Festival, with five youngish directors of recent notable films bringing new works that, upon inspection, looked to the past without notably reflecting on the present: Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Lee Daniels' The Paperboy and John Hillcoat's Lawless are stylized in different ways but lacking in contemporary connections. Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly overplays its political hand by smothering the small-time crime drama with background TV broadcasts of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, while Jeff Nichols' Mud lives in the present but clearly draws inspiration from Huck Finn.
Two more American-set films -- Walter Salles' On the Road, rooted in the 1950s, and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, insistently set in the present -- brought the shortfalling U.S.-set total to seven. All have classy names attached and are unquestionably independent in spirit, but they received mixed critical reactions and face uncertain commercial futures. If nothing else, the American lineup fulfilled festival director Thierry Fremaux's promise of opening the Cannes Film Festival to genre films, something predecessor Gilles Jacob never did.
In the end, the only consolation for Americans was the rapturous local reception for Benh Zeitlin's Sundance-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Camera d'Or for best first feature in any Cannes section.
After pulling off one of the most unlikely Oscar triumphs in history with The Artist, which debuted a year ago in Cannes, the French industry drew blanks from the jury as well. It already has the consolation of its starriest entry, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, with Marion Cotillard, having become a local box-office smash, and it also can bask in the startling manner Leos Carax's extravagantly wayward Holy Motors erupted as the festival's hotly debated sensation; you couldn't leave Cannes without seeing this extreme provocation, one ignored by the jury.
One wonders how different the prizes might have been had the jury been headed by an iconoclast like Tim Burton, who gave the Palme d'Or two years ago to the unclassifiable Uncle Boonmee by Apichatpong Weerasthakul (whose featurette Mekong Hotel was a nonevent this year). Some Euros were convinced that the Palme never would go to Amour because, after seeing Austrian Michael Haneke's manipulative Funny Games years ago, jury president Nanni Moretti had sworn never to shake the hand of the man who made it.
The top prize won by Haneke's rigorously unsentimental but moving study of the erosion of age, to the strongly evident approval of the Grand Palais Lumiere crowd, presumably proved that such grudges can have expiration dates. But more relevantly, it demonstrated the preference of this jury, which also included directors Raoul Peck and Alexander Payne, for humanistic work rather than more inscrutable modernism.
In the U.S., Haneke's work has yet to break through beyond art house devotees, as there always has been a forbidding aspect to his intellectual tinkerings. Centered on approaching death as it is, Amour is unlikely to drastically increase the director's appeal to U.S. audiences, but it's the first time I gave myself over completely to one of his films. Anyone who has closely witnessed the physical decline of a loved one will respond to this beautifully wrought drama.
The third French entry, 89-year-old Alain Resnais' You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, also has age and mortality on its mind, if in a more playful way. But as it fell a bit short of hopes, speculation dwelled on whether two films rejected by Cannes, from Olivier Assayas and Laurent Cantet, might have fared better. As it was, the only film seen on the Croisette that most felt was so good it should have been in Competition was Pablo Larrain's No from Chile.
Ken Loach's jury prize-winning The Angels' Share is a thorough delight and a real audience-pleaser. By contrast, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills, though it won two awards and is seriously absorbing, doesn't entirely come together. The grand jury prize for Matteo Garrone's Reality, a disappointing look at a failed reality show contestant, can mostly be attributed to national solidarity from Moretti.
It was widely noted that there were no films by women in Competition. But just as eyebrow-raising was the paucity of anything of great interest from Asia. Hong Sangsoo's undercooked In Another Country and Im Sang-soo's overheated The Taste of Money, both from South Korea, were the only Competition entries from the continent. Set in Japan but with a man-of-the-world personality of its own was Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, which leaves one contemplating his triangulated visual and dialogue patterns rather than absorbing any meaning from them. But with the exception of Yousry Nasrallah's undigested melodrama about revolutionary Egypt, Africa and the Middle East were unrepresented, as were Australia, China and Southeast Asia and South America. One can hope this is a question of seasonal circumstances that will change by the fall festival season.