CANNES, France — There was Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman, red carpet glamour and a crop of new Academy Award contenders — but this was also the year the global financial crisis exploded onto movie screens at Cannes.
“La Crise” — as the French call it — bedeviled Robert Pattinson’s disaster-bound billionaire in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, the unemployed Glasgow youth in Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, the bare-knuckle boxer in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and the worried mobsters in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.
We live in anxious times, and that feeling was reflected at the French Riviera film festival that’s a byword for frocks and froth, as well as for serious cinema.
The mood seemed to be mirrored by the weather. Several days were unseasonably cold and stormy, turning red-carpet photocalls into rain-lashed ordeals.
In the face of this angst, the jury rewarded love, giving Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Austrian director Michael Haneke for Amour, a starkly powerful film about an elderly couple coping with the wife’s worsening health.
Second and third prizes went to Matteo Garrone’s Italian satire Reality and Ken Loach’s whiskey-tasting comedy The Angels’ Share, and there were acting honours for Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt and Romania’s Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan for Beyond the Hills.
Although the festival had a strong American flavour, there were no prizes for a batch of films that examined the United States, past and present — often through the lens of non-American directors.
Australia’s John Hillcoat depicted Prohibition-era bootleggers in Lawless and Brazil’s Walter Salles crossed the country in his adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road. New Zealand-born Dominik set Killing Them Softly, a thriller starring Brad Pitt as a worldly Mob enforcer, against the backdrop of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, while Canada’s Cronenberg sent Pattinson’s stretch limo across a Manhattan of security threats and Occupy-style protests.
Cronenberg said that “it seemed at points that we were working more on a documentary.”
American directors also looked long and hard at their country. Lee Daniels stirred the sexual and racial politics of the 1960s South into a death-row thriller in The Paperboy, while Jeff Nichols’ Mud spun a modern-day Huckleberry Finn story among Mississippi River fishing families whose way of life is threatened.
It would not be the Cannes Film Festival without moments of controversy — and craziness.
The former was provided by the absence of any female directors from the 22 films in the festival’s main competition. The situation drew letters and petitions in France and the United States, and even a small protest by feminist group La Barbe in front of Cannes’ famous red carpet.
Cannes director Thierry Fremaux responded that he chose films solely on merit, but the festival promised to make a greater effort to hunt down films by women.
The baffling and bizarre were provided by the surreal appearance of the devil in a Mexican family home in Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux — which won the directing prize — and by pretty much everything, including a parking lot full of talking stretch limos, in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.
While Carax’s mysterious meditation on performance and reality is unlikely to tempt Hollywood’s Academy, there was plenty at Cannes that will.
There was no film this year with the obvious mainstream crossover appeal of last year’s breakout Cannes movie, The Artist, which went on to win five Oscars.
That film was acquired by The Weinstein Co., which this year has picked up The Sapphires, a buoyant musical about an Australian Aboriginal girl group that played out of competition at Cannes. It plans a fall release in the U.S.
The likeliest candidate for an Oscars boost may be Mud, an assured and moving third feature from 33-year-old director Nichol. The film gives Matthew McConaughey a standout role as a mystic-minded fugitive holed up on an island in the Mississippi, and also draws powerfully natural performances from child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.
McConaughey also appears in The Paperboy, which features an attention-grabbing performance from Kidman as a sultry femme fatale. It could win her an Oscar nomination, and there could also be one for Marion Cotillard’s intense performance as a killer whale trainer who has a tragic workplace accident in Rust and Bone.
And there’s likely to be a solid audience for Killing Them Softly, a taut, 1970s-style crime thriller that sees Pitt play cynical straight man to some outstanding character acting from the likes of James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta.
Cannes is a strange blend of high-art seriousness and Hollywood chutzpah, where the latest Haneke masterwork coexists with Sacha Baron Cohen riding a camel down the seaside Croisette as The Dictator.
Even for showbiz veterans, it can be a remarkable experience, as McConaughey discovered at the gala premiere of The Paperboy.
“It got a wonderful ovation and I’ve never experienced that,” he said. “I’ve never done stage, and so I’ve never really experienced an immediate response live like that. It was nice to take a breath and say, ‘Feel this. Feel this, McConaughey. This is a special, once-in-a-lifetime thing.”’