On Sunday night, the Cannes competition jury got it right. It can’t have been a hard decision: the competition this year was filled with acceptable rather than outstanding films, and one work that was so clearly a great achievement that it would have been perverse to award the Palme d’Or to anything else. In recent years, I’ve grown slightly weary of the august, knowingly assured maestria of Michael Haneke. But in Amour, he has not only revealed an unsuspected tenderness, but also broken a significant cinematic taboo: old age.
Anne and Georges, played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, are musicians leading a cultivated, stable life together until she has a stroke, and all certainties begin to collapse. The drama is essentially a two-hander; the execution is spare and the progress of Anne’s decline is all the more affecting given the ellipses that take us from stage to stage of her illness without superfluous explanation. Instead, we suddenly notice, for example, that Anne’s bedside table is now stacked with medical supplies. There is no crass show of emotion: never mind Hollywood tears; even the more moderate sentimental displays of European art cinema are drastically reduced here. Riva and Trintingant’s performances are not merely compelling but audacious for two actors themselves in their eighties, and the Palme d’Or was surely awarded to them as much as to Haneke.
The competition was low on lighter pleasures, and a certain literary earnestness dogged some entries. On the Road (Walter Salles) was in thrall to the mythical status of Kerouac’s book; no one could say it wasn’t an honourable venture, but it offered little Beat Generation headiness. And after the exuberant fugue of his last film, Wild Grass, Alain Resnais returned with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a labyrinthine musing on film, theatre and death, hamstrung by the pedantic flippancy of the two Jean Anouilh plays it’s based on.
But there was one literary adaptation that proved enthralling, although it won no awards. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Based on Don DeLillo’s novel, is chamber theatre on wheels, a series of dialogues staged largely within the claustrophobic capsule of a stretch limo crossing Manhattan from east to west. Its occupant is a billionaire wunderkind, played by Robert Pattinson, who in the course of his journey has sex with Juliette Binoche, submits to a rectal examination, and is the recipient of a pie in the face from a European activist (seemingly based on the Belgian entarteur Noël Godin).
The film’s commentary on financial excess and its erosion of the Western soul is at times overstated and mundane, like the novel; but Cronenberg seems to have found an absurd comedy in DeLillo’s hyper-stylised dialogue. Cosmopolis is hypnotically slow and still, its forward thrust paralleling the glacial, hypnotic glide of the limo. This makes me admire the trailer all the more: it offers a two-minute assemblage of wham-bam action, which is totally misleading and a magnificent stroke of chutzpah.
As one tweeter noted, stay in Cannes long enough and the films start talking among themselves. There was a ripple of laughter during the Cosmopolis press show when someone asked where limos go at night. According to Holy Motors, they sit in a celestial garage and exchange disapproving comments about human folly. Holy Motors was the comeback (after 13 years) of Leos Carax, and I was relieved that it didn’t win a prize; I hated it, although some critics considered it a visionary rapture. It’s really a series of bravura turns by the magnificent grotesque Denis Lavant, playing a man who drives round Paris in a limo, slipping into various disguises like a metaphysical Lon Chaney. There are touches of brilliance (there’s a great interlude of accordion rock) but the film lost my sympathy from the outset, with a dream sequence in which Carax himself finds a secret passage leading from his bedroom to, what else, a cinema. He is not the Jean Cocteau de ses jours, but I’d be very happy if he continued to be the French Terrence Malick and only troubled us once a decade.