AS this year’s Cannes Film Festival moved into the opening weekend it was hard to avoid the pervading sense that something akin to a phoney war was being fought. Having opened with the new offering from Wes Anderson, the inventive if lightweight Moonrise Kingdom, audiences patiently awaited the first film that would set down a marker for the big prizes and ignite serious debate.
Efforts such as Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, which examined the attempts of European women of a certain age to find romantic and sexual fulfilment in Africa, and former Grand Prix winner for A Prophet Jacques Audiard’s powerful drama Rust And Bone both had their supporters and detractors, but neither made a strong case for the ultimate prize. There were other entries that either misfired or appeared out of their depth.
Matteo Garrone had won the Grand Prix at Cannes for his organised crime film Gomorrah and Reality sees him return to Naples for a comedy about a fishmonger’s obsession with appearing on the Italian version of Big Brother. Despite an opening scene that made nods towards Federico Fellini, the film eventually flounders. However, real life became far more compelling than reality when it was revealed that the reason lead actor Aniello Arena, who delivers such an eminently likeable, energetic and edgy performance as the lead character that it raised comparisons with a young Robert De Niro, was absent was due to his incarceration in Italy for being part of a mafia hit squad in 1991.
John Hillcoat’s Lawless certainly had its critics, but its mixture of violence and black humour made for an entertaining brew. Based on author Matt Bondurant’s fictionalised family account The Wettest County In The World and scripted by Nick Cave, it gets under the skin of the Appalachian region during Prohibition. The strong ensemble cast mixes newcomers Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the elder Bondurant brothers with Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. However, the real casting surprise in this gritty crime drama is Transformers actor Shia LaBeouf as the youngest Bondurant brother whose coming of age trajectory the film tracks.
Eventually the main contenders made themselves known. Having won the Palme d’Or in 2007 with the unsparing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu returned with the equally rigorous Beyond The Hills. Set largely in the oppressive surroundings of a rural monastery Mungiu once again focuses on the contrasting moral views of two young women. There is a strong suggestion that both were more than just friends, but when one of them becomes a novitiate the other arrives at the monastery to take her back with her to Germany. It all ends tragically, but the dense, layered script never seems overwrought.
Also bringing a dispassionate eye to proceedings is Michael Haneke. Set largely in a Parisian apartment, Amour features powerful performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva as an elderly couple whose idyllic existence is shattered when the wife suffers from a severe stroke. As one would expect from The White Ribbon director, it is an unsparing, perfectly pitched but not uncompassionate portrait of the tough choices that have to be made in life. Given that Cannes jury president Nanni Moretti visited similar territory for The Son’s Room one could feel confident in Haneke winning the top prize again.
Abbas Kiarostami’s unlikely to figure in the final shake-up, but Like Someone In Love is a thoroughly charming film. Its tightly constructed comic script is a delight. Also returning to comic territory is Ken Loach whose The Angels’ Share sees the social realist director come as close as he will to doing a genre picture, in this case a crime caper involving a whisky heist. It had audiences in hysterics from the opening scene.
Also making a huge impact is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a film driven by the remarkable Denis Lavant, who plays nine different characters. It is as swashbuckling and cavalier as it mind-boggling. Perhaps it still is all to play for.
* Don O’Mahony is at Cannes with the Cork Film Festival.