The young French journalist at the next café table was moaning disconsolately into his iPhone. ‘C’est idiot! C’est superficiel! I came here for serious cinema – but there’s nothing here but le showbusiness!’ It was his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, and two days in, he was shocked at the preponderance of glitter. I don’t normally make a big thing of playing the seasoned old hand on the Croisette – although this year was my 21st visit to the festival – but I couldn’t help leaning over and reassuring him that there was plenty of seriousness to be found in Cannes, despite the opening days’ obsession with glamour. In fact, there could hardly have been a more misleading opening film than Baz Luhrmann’s bling-laden 3D version of The Great Gatsby.
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.
It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I can’t really argue with the Cannes jury’s decision to award the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I found its overarching cosmic aspirations indigestible – the film felt like an attempt to refit the Sublime for the IMAX era – but Malick was undeniably determined to challenge narrative cinema’s traditional limitations. The film that I hoped would win outright was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia.
Some people – and this is very evident in Cannes – like to think of the cinema as a church. But the church can be a cathedral, as in the case of Terence Malick’s hyperbolic cosmological statement The Tree of Life, or it can be an austere, draughty chapel with hard benches, which is what you get with Bruno Dumont. I’m more of the Dumont persuasion, personally, although I couldn’t help gasping in awe at much of the Malick film, just as it may be hard not to gasp at a church organ being played extremely loud.
Pious as it’s tempting to be about Cannes, the European shrine of world cinema, you just have to look around to be reminded that this is a town for sale. The front of the Hotel Carlton is decked with lavish advertising for forthcoming Hollywood product such as Cars 2, Cowboys and Aliens and the next Transformers sequel. The lawn of another hotel, the Grand – formerly the town’s one oasis of green open space – is covered with gleaming white pavilions emblazoned with the logos of Grey Goose and Audi. Yet cinephiles continue to persuade themselves that we come to Cannes to prostrate ourselves at the altar of le septième art at its most rarefied. Moviegoing here is attended by something close to religious belief. French critics will talk of waiting for ‘des révélations’; we’re all after cinematic miracles, hoping for a film that will either shine from the screen or, at least, change some of the rules and sweep away some of our preconceptions.