The heavy rain that poured on the 65th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival might have put a damper on some of the beach parties and special anniversary celebrations, but the programme was strong, with much love and death at its heart, some welcome oddities and two certifiable masterpieces. One was Michael Haneke’s formidable Love (Amour), which eventually took home the Palme d’Dor while the other, Leos Carax’s original and brilliantly elusive Holy Motors came away empty-handed – a decision that left many critics baffled.
Compared to Haneke’s earlier works, Love stands out for its astounding sensitivity and subtle tenderness, but ultimately, the story, which centres around 80-odd-year-old retired music teachers George and Anne, is no less hard-hitting. As the couple are faced with Anne’s physical and mental deterioration after two successive strokes, the film scrutinizes, in a profoundly intelligent and unsettling way, the consequences of life and death, and the role that long-standing love plays when one half of an ageing couple is facing the end. As one would expect from a filmmaker as precise and skilful as Haneke, Love is finely scripted, superbly composed, and often hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. The quiet grandeur of the film, however, would be lost without its two main actors: Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose astonishing, disarmingly honest performances breathe life into Haneke’s formal perfection in capturing the realities of terminal illness in meticulous detail. In fact, for the first time in his career, Haneke, the grand puppet master, seems to have dropped his strings: with a troubling and omnipresent sense of inevitability, his method here is not to masterly lead his characters into gloom and hopelessness, but to follow the couple through their spacious Paris apartment with the utmost trust and delicacy, without a trace of pathos or sentimentality. Crafted with passionate conviction and a mastery of film language, Love is that rare work of genius: an acute philosophical inquiry that’s highly emotionally charged, but also dramatically gripping, incredibly discreet and utterly credible in its depiction of human behaviour.
Despite the resemblance in title, and the fact that both directors come from the same country, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) couldn’t be more different. In Seidl’s film, which marks the first instalment of his Paradise triptych (the second part, Hope, is premiering in competition in Venice later this year), Margarethe Tiesel stars as Teresa, a chubby single mother in her fifties, whose desperate search for love and affection turns increasingly wolfish when she steps out of her hotel room at a luxury holiday resort in Kenya, where her friend has assured her that sex is plentiful. At first reluctant to have sex with one of the many underage beach boys on offer, she soon can’t help but give in to temptation. However, not unlike Haneke, Seidl slightly tones down the brutal rigidity of his earlier work as he moves into warmer territory, both climatically and emotionally – for many, a welcome relief that nonetheless doesn’t prevent the film from being yet another of the Austrian provocateur’s apt, poignant and fiercely honest explorations of the incorrigibly odd and debauched side of society.
As the festival, and the rain, continued, more films emerged that concerned themselves with the joys and sorrows of love. In this context, the more accessible approach offered by Miike Takashi’s For Love’s Sake (Ai To Makoto) turned out to be mildly entertaining. Based on Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu’s 1970s cult manga The Legend of Love and Sincerity, Miike’s revitalised screen version blithely mixes exuberant action, daft comedy, narrative-framing animé sequences and tongue-in-cheek high school musical scenes galore, as it follows the boisterous romance between the rebellious Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and innocent student Ai (Takei Emi), their chemistry at moments exploding like pop-art fireworks against a burning sky. For Love’s Sake certainly has style and ambition to spare, but a flawed script and overlong execution leave it somewhat unfulfilling. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Japanese venture Like Someone in Love was equally too flat and overlong. More interested in its Tokyo environment than in anything else, it was too plodding and self-regarding to be charming. The film tells the story of a brief encounter between elderly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) and young, erratic, part-time call-girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who in turn is the object of desire of clinging, jealous Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Perhaps a more rigorous editor than Kiarostami’s son Bahman could have disposed of the protracted dialogue sequences, and made the few great scenes and ideas cohere into a deeper narrative. But whereas Kiarostami’s best films keep haunting, nagging and daring you to think about them long after watching them, this one is instantly forgettable.
The Directors’ Fortnight offered a first glimpse of the smaller-scale cinematic pleasures on show with Pablo Larraín’s No. Gael García Bernal plays an ambitious, young Chilean advertising man who is asked to help create a persuasive campaign for the anti-Pinochet ‘No’ vote in the 1988 national plebiscite, which ultimately ended the military dictatorship that had ruled the country for 16 years. Not as dark, and much less surreal and distinctive in style than Larraín’s previous work revolving around the repressive Pinochet regime, No is an extremely watchable lesson in historically and politically charged filmmaking.
The other stand-out in the Director’s Fortnight was a documentary exploring the inner meanings of a horror classic that was shot over 20 years ago, namely Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Brimming with clips from the original film and enriched with footage from the shoot, as well as detailed sketches and maps that reveal the architectural layout of the notorious Timberline Lodge, Rodney Ascher’s intriguing and lovingly constructed Room 237 does a brilliant job of staging the mind-boggling and often hilarious interpretations of the film’s subtext, offered by various narrators. Ascher never dismisses any of the outlandish arguments (for example, those concerning Kubrick’s involvement in the ‘faked’ Apollo 11 moon-landing footage) or takes the side of the more plausible ones. It’s a special treat for film fans (not only those of Kubrick’s film or the horror genre as such), and the perfect excuse to re-watch The Shining again for the umpteenth time.
Without doubt, however, the most polarising and excitedly discussed film of the festival – and my personal highlight – was Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s comeback film after over a decade of failed projects and aborted dreams. Some of these might even have found their way into this story of an actor at work and a man challenged by, as Carax put it, ‘the experience of being alive’. Played by Denis Lavant, Monsieur Oscar is chauffeured through the nocturnal streets of Paris in a white stretch limo by his assistant Celine (Edith Scob), rushing from one mini-acting job to the next. Each of them requires him to read a script and change his look entirely using the pre-selected outfits that he finds carefully prepared for him in the fully equipped dressing room that is the back of his car. Some of the episodes – in particular, when Lavant becomes an old man on his deathbed; or as he squeezes into a slick, black Lycra suit to act in an erotic motion-capture scene together with another performer – are brilliant. Others, like the sequence in which he turns into the Monsieur Merde (from Carax’s segment in the 2008 anthology film Tokyo) and kidnaps Eva Mendes at a fashion photo shoot, are just goofy. In all, however, the sundry characters burst with imagination, personality and drama. Carax knows that mixing cinema and reality can be a dangerous game, but in Holy Motors, life seems way too short to waste time with conventions. It is the kind of film Cannes should be celebrating. It’s a delightful oddity, a dazzling and daring labour of love that reawakens faith in – and appreciation for – cinema, and the art of acting. In fact, that alone would have made it worthy of an award.