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Tender drama and wild inventiveness at the Cannes Film Festival

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Michael Haneke’s Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Ah, Cannes—the international film festival where journalists nearly kill each other struggling to get the first look at new movies starring the likes of Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, even Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (separately, not together), but wind up falling in love with a tender but grueling drama about imminent death starring two octogenarians. For the second time in just four years, Cannes' highest award, the Palme d'Or, went to Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), who took a break from his patented brand of emotional terrorism to examine the true meaning of devotion in Amour (which Sony Pictures Classics plans to release in the U.S. this December apparently under its original title, rather than as Love).

While not the best film in this year's Competition slate, it's a more than worthy winner, featuring powerhouse performances from two legends of the French New Wave, Jean-Louis Trintignant (My Night at Maud's) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour); few movies have dared to stare so openly at the indignity and horror of old age, and no previous Haneke film has achieved such a moving amalgam of bleakness and warmth. Dry eyes will be in short supply when it finally opens.

Other prizewinners were somewhat less distinguished. The Grand Prix, or second place, went to Reality, a thematically bold but only fitfully amusing satire by Italy's Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), about a middle-aged husband and father who becomes obsessed with joining the new cast of the Italian Big Brother.

Third prize was inexplicably won by Ken Loach's merely cute The Angels' Share, in which one of his standard troubled proles discovers the world of whiskey snobs and decides to steal an especially valuable blend. Few critics, including yours truly, claimed to understand Mexico's baffling, arresting Post Tenebras Lux, for which Carlos Reygadas won Best Director. And the acting prizes were awarded to former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen, playing a schoolteacher falsely accused of sexual abuse in Denmark's The Hunt, and jointly to first-time Romanian actresses Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, as a young nun and her fiercely secular best friend in Cristian Mungiu's stark exorcism drama Beyond the Hills (which also won Best Screenplay).

Meanwhile, the unusually robust North American presence this year was totally ignored by the jury. Not that there were any masterpieces among the selections, mind you. The most interesting and ambitious of the lot was directed by Australian Andrew Dominik, re-teaming with his Assassination of Jesse James star Brad Pitt for Killing Them Softly, a fantastically gritty adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade that's badly undermined by incessant boldface yammering about the 2008 financial meltdown.

Likewise, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, from the novel by Don DeLillo, founders when it turns its attention from the haves—most notably Robert Pattinson, impressively robotic as a billionaire slowly crossing Manhattan in a stretch limo to get a needless haircut—to the plight of the have-nots, represented by Paul Giamatti. And I'm now in favor of a constitutional amendment banning Lee Daniels from stepping behind a camera of any kind, as his follow-up to Precious, The Paperboy, is even more repugnant in its gleeful grotesquerie (including Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron) overlaid with a patina of pseudo-progressive seriousness.

Years from now, however, the 2012 Cannes Film Festival will surely be remembered for another movie that somehow won nothing at all: Holy Motors, the first feature directed by France's Leos Carax since 1999's Pola X. Like Cosmopolis, it's a daylong stretch-limo tour, but in place of Pattinson is the chameleonic Denis Lavant (probably best known as the star of Claire Denis' Beau Travail), who proceeds to keep a series of unexplained "appointments" that involve transforming himself into everything from a bag lady to a motion-capture specialist, from a harried dad to a dying patriarch, from an assassin to his own victim. Look hard enough and you can find a wry statement about the extent to which our lives have become virtual, but the glory of Holy Motors resides less in its message than in its sheer giddy inventiveness; it's the sort of unprecedented, sui generis artistic cliff dive that festivals like Cannes were created to showcase.

Word on the street was that jury president Nanni Moretti (whose own films, like the recent We Have a Pope, tend to be considerably less ambitious and insane) hated it, and it failed to even win Lavant the Best Actor prize that had seemed inevitable to the press corps. Ultimately, however—as with such previous ignored Cannes masterpieces as Dogville and Do the Right Thing—history will decide.

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