Elephant in the Room

Dennis Lim on the 65th Cannes Film Festival

Michael Haneke, Amour, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Production still. Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).

A TUMULTUOUS CANNES FILM FESTIVAL, marked by constant downpours and frequent boos, ended with the restoration of order. For the most part, the decisions of the Nanni Moretti–led jury were a vindication of recent history and the critical consensus. The Palme d’Or went to Amour, by Michael Haneke, who won the top prize in 2009 for his previous film, The White Ribbon. Cristian Mungiu, a Palme laureate in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, took two prizes (screenplay and actress, split between the two leads) for Beyond the Hills. (The Haneke and Mungiu films were also the joint leaders of Screen International’s annual critics’ poll.) Matteo Garrone’s Reality won the runner-up Grand Prix, the same prize he picked up in 2008 for Gomorrah. And Ken Loach, who inexplicably holds the record for number of films in the Cannes competition, took the third-place Prix du Jury for The Angel’s Share. This is a festival that, through thick and thin, stands behind its chosen auteurs, but at times like this, the Cannes ecosystem feels more like an echo chamber.

In theory Cannes is a balancing act, an attempt to level the playing field. Installed in the firmament of the competition, veteran auteurs and next big things, movie stars and relative nobodys, get to walk the same red carpet in “holy worship of a common transcendent reality,” as André Bazin once put it. (Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, this year’s winner of the Camera d’Or for first film, called Cannes “the temple.”) In practice—with some notable exceptions, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s surprise Palme d’Or in 2010—the hothouse atmosphere of the festival, in bringing certain fault lines to the fore, tends to emphasize the divisions within the art-cinema economy, and the Moretti verdict only underscored the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Cannes can be—depending on your mood, the film in question, deadline pressures, the previous night’s amount of alcohol or sleep, the behavior of the mobs thronging the bottleneck entrances of each screening—the most exhilarating or the most unpleasant place to see movies. An arena of snap judgments, rife with the dangers of groupthink and contrarianism, it is also a particularly challenging environment for the practice of criticism, or whatever it is we zombiefied masses think we are doing when we stagger out of a screening and attempt immediately to offer a coherent opinion, never mind an insight, preferably one that can be expressed in 140 characters or less. It doesn’t help that Cannes’s sense of its own importance tends to infect its attendees, who feel they are part of something special, and are compelled to react with corresponding volume and vigor. Hence the fabled boos, especially loud and belligerent this year and seemingly directed at any film that did not instantly satisfy expectations or disclose its ultimate meaning within a split second of its conclusion.

In the surreal aquarium of Cannes, what sinks and what floats? More than once during the festival, I thought of Manny Farber’s classic 1962 manifesto “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” and especially his detailing of the former category: the would-be masterpiece, the self-aggrandizing work of self-conscious gravitas that thinks of “art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area.” Farber’s classifications don’t exactly apply today (nor were they ever meant to be all that strict), but he did nail the symptoms and traits of what we might broadly term the prestige movie. To a degree, most of this year’s official successes at Cannes fit his conception of artistic elephantiasis: They have legible, laudable, more or less humanist intentions; they draw praise for their obviously impeccable craftsmanship (“well-made” is a common epithet); and they leave little doubt about their streamlined, practically predigested meanings.

Beyond the Hills, which edges the Romanian predilection for farcical disaster procedural into a semiparodic house style, amounts to a single-minded proof of the deadly pieties of religion. Reality has a few thrilling passages of bravura filmmaking—as well as a fairly unsubtle point to hammer home about the vulgarity of Berlusconi’s Italy. Amour is at once the most elegantly wrought and the bluntest example of all, forcing us to face a fact of life rarely shown on screen with such directness or at such great length: the unbearable horror and pain of aging and dying, and of watching our loved ones do so.

Many have observed that Amour is Haneke’s most tender film. True, but I don’t think that precludes its also being his most seamlessly manipulative. The central impulse of Haneke’s work—to confront his audience with something they would rather not contemplate (or, as is often said, to discomfit or even punish them)—is not mitigated here so much as totalized, given ultimate and universal significance. To call the film (which often feels like it was made for the express purpose of winning a Palme d’Or) undeniably affecting is also to acknowledge its screw-turning, Haneke-like aspect. How could anyone fail to be moved by this subject, or by Jean-Louis Trintignant, eighty-one, and Emmanuelle Riva, eighty-four, offering up their fragile bodies as well as the auras of their younger selves? Rarely has Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that a film is a documentary of its actors been so vividly demonstrated. Watching Riva and Trintignant make their way to the podium at the awards ceremony Sunday night, I found myself no less touched, perhaps even more so, than while watching Amour.

Leos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Denis Lavant.

I should clarify that I don’t especially dislike most of the major prizewinners (the exception being Loach’s pointless trifle). What’s objectionable is the amount of critical adulation that these eminently respectable films hog at the expense of those whose ambitions are out of line, whether for being too modest or too wild or too unclearly stated. This year, for instance, relative miniaturists like Hong Sang-soo (in competition with In Another Country) and Wes Anderson (who opened the festival with Moonrise Kingdom) barely made a dent in the Cannes consciousness. Both, as it happens, are filmmakers often accused of making the same film over and over—a reductive charge that came up again during the festival—and to stick for a moment with Farber’s schema, it’s no surprise that, when it came to the prizes, Hong’s and Anderson’s termitelike tendencies stood little chance against the stampede of the white elephants.

But for a Cannes audience of critics, eager to formulate a retweetable aperçu, there is no worse offense than opacity, because really, how many ways can you say “WTF”? The most indignant hooting of the festival was reserved for Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a pair of films defined by, among other things, their moment-to-moment unpredictability. I won’t make great claims for either—both demand a second viewing—but even on a first encounter, both films were bolder, more sensuous and mysterious, more willing to challenge narrative conventions than almost anything else in competition. Reygadas’s directing prize was the jury’s one concession to risk taking. Kiarostami left with nothing; ditto Hong, Anderson, and David Cronenberg, whose dense, heady Don DeLillo adaptation, Cosmopolis, was summarily dismissed by the press once the Robert Pattinson frenzy subsided.

But the most egregious jury snub, no question, was for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which single-handedly enlivened a weak competition and was met with both sustained cheers and jeers. A cinephilic collective dream on the order of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, the year’s other great movie so far, Holy Motors is a film about life as cinema and cinema as life, about the blurred lines between acting and being, a work that transcends pastiche to summon never-before-seen images and real depths of feeling. Matching a philosophically resonant conceit about play-acting—somewhere between commedia dell’arte and the eerie reenactments of Tom McCarthy’s great novel Remainder—to the remarkable shape-shifting abilities of its lead actor Denis Lavant, it’s a film with an all but boundless capacity to surprise and delight, one I can’t wait to revisit.

All told, it was hard not to read the jury’s conclusions as polemical. In picking Haneke’s Amour over Carax’s amour fou, Moretti and company opted for an allegory of the death of the art film (and its audience) over a glimpse of its possible future reanimation. Maybe this isn’t such a bad fate for Carax, a cinéaste maudit in his youth and clearly no more assimilable in middle age. He gave no interviews in Cannes and, at his press conference, was asked one inane question after another about the meaning of his film and the wisdom of making something so strange for a moviegoing public. With one terse, haunting response he captured the moribund gloom of this year’s festival: “I don’t know who is the public. All I know is it’s a bunch of people who will be dead very soon.”

The 65th Cannes Film Festival ran May 16–27, 2012.