Sergio Corbucci, Django, 1966, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.

THE HISTORY OF SPAGHETTI WESTERNS is a series of increasingly diluted copies and diminishing returns. The first movie in the genre, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), is already doubly derivative. Not only an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), A Fistful of Dollars is also a B-movie repetition of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, which had turned Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) into a star-studded Hollywood western in 1960. And the hundreds of spaghetti westerns that followed in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars consisted mostly of imitations and spurious sequels of one film: Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), itself a loose reworking of the major elements of A Fistful of Dollars. A movie like Django Kill . . . If You Live, Shoot! (1967) is therefore at some remove from its original material in Yojimbo. (A Fistful of Dollars, Django, and Django Kill . . . are among the twenty-six movies screening in “Spaghetti Westerns,” a three-week-long survey of the genre at Film Forum in June.)

Django is less “about” its own material (a taciturn, haunted Civil War soldier caught between Mexican bandits and Ku Klux Klan–style vigilantes) than it is a metacommentary on Hollywood’s idyllic version of America’s past. Before it is a story, it is already an interpretation. While Hollywood had produced its own “de-mythologizing” westerns—John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962)—Django is the bleakest revisionism: the old West as Hobbesian war of all against all, openly and murderously racist, with rape as the national pastime. Instead of a Manichaean clash between good and evil, or between civilization and savage Indians, Django pits a hateful, filthy mob against its exact double, with the nominal hero a selfish, humorless killing machine. The love story is an intentionally off-putting travesty: such well-defined cheekbones, so little human kindness.

Just as Euripides (history’s first hack) looked at the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus and saw only eye gougings and bathtub axings, which he sought to amplify, Django appropriates the “dark” tropes of late-1950s Hollywood westerns (Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie [1955] and Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock [1959]) and empties them of psychology and nuance. Where James Stewart or Henry Fonda brought a kind of desperate, embarrassed sadism to the self-righteousness of the Law of the West, Django’s Franco Nero (badly dubbed) is without the kind of principles that can really get a man in trouble. Among the spaghetti westerns, this quality of being pushed beyond decency by an incensed, bitter claim is achieved only by Nero himself in Enzo Castellari’s very late Keoma (1976), and by Henry Fonda in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But as Django, Nero is unmoored and unmotivated—driven by a kind of general, free-floating revenge. Perhaps it is this detachment and lack of specificity in the character that opened the door to so many sequels and rip-offs.

If all that Hollywood classics like The Naked Spur (1953) or Destry Rides Again (1939) required was, in Godard fashion, “a girl and a gun,” Django—which began filming without a finished script—imports all manner of atrocities to sustain the action, most memorably a scene where an ear is cut off. Lacking a coherent plot, like most spaghetti westerns Django substitutes a succession of “one thing after another,” peppered with eccentric and attention-grabbing violence. But the exploitation and depravity of the spaghettis, their moral shoddiness, are really not for the viewer. Scenes of human target practice, the whipping of prostitutes, or the bludgeoning of hands into raw pulp are in a sense enacted for the Hollywood archetype itself. The mechanized violence of Django machine-gunning his enemies gives the lie to the heroic individualism of America’s “greatest generation.” It is as though these movies were shoving their grotesqueness directly in the face of John Wayne, demanding, “You like this, don’t you?” The stomach-churning elements in these movies are less titillation and more ritual sacrifice, where the “one who enjoys” the violence is really not the community of onlookers but the abstract other seen as demanding this or that degradation. Spaghetti westerns offer themselves up to the falsely righteous cinematic myth of Hollywood’s West, whose true rancorous bloodlust is here appeased. As Anatole France would have it, “Les dieux ont soif”—the gods are athirst.

This procedure allows Django to disown its nihilism—you see, it is really our nihilism, as Americans—and to smuggle in a moralism not any more complex than what you would find in Stagecoach (1939). Predictably, subsequent films in this vein often devolved into cynical, unstructured decadence, as exemplified in the self-parody My Name Is Nobody (1973) and the eclectic Sabata (1969). As the genre progressed, the better films tended toward explicitly leftist positions—most notably, A Bullet for the General (1966). One exception, however, is Leone’s unwatchable Fistful of Dynamite (1971, screening at Film Forum as Duck, You Sucker!). Despite being the most caustically political film here—James Coburn plays an IRA explosives expert caught up in the Mexican Revolution—it’s an exceptionally distasteful work, almost baroque in its ingenuity of unpleasant, even pornographic one-upmanship. Even composer Ennio Morricone, the true genius behind Leone’s films, is off his game here. There is nothing uglier than cynicism, and the genre’s implosion is a carnival of meaningless spectacle tossed at the viewer like so many bloody scraps. What was initially the target of critique—the ruthless inhumanity (personified in the frequent casting of Klaus Kinski) of American mastery—became an end in itself. The only way to watch these garish late-cycle spaghetti westerns might be as cultural analogues to “End of the 1960s” phenomena like Altamont: a decadence obscurely closing in upon itself.

Ben Parker

“Spaghetti Westerns” runs June 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.

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.”

Dennis Lim

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

Cristian Mungiu, Beyond the Hills, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 150 minutes. Production still. Voichița and Alina (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur).

MANAGING TO AVOID most of the operatic thunderstorm that hit Cannes for several hours this afternoon, I emerged from my apartment to walk in the rain for the last time to the Palais des Festivals—the bunkerlike compound that comprises the Grand Théâtre Lumière and the Salle Debussy—around 6:30 PM to watch a live transmission of the awards ceremony. Guests of the closing festivities had the pleasure of walking the red carpet to the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” (Who are these DJs? “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played soon after.)

Fittingly, the dampest Cannes in decades ended with a particularly dull closing ceremony (no outrageous behavior, no big upsets). Hosted by Bérénice Bejo, who starred in last year’s festival hit The Artist, the seven palmarès went to six different films. Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, a bleak, powerful Romanian Orthodox monastery–set tale about a friendship between two young women who grew up in the same orphanage, won Best Screenplay. In one of the night’s only surprises, the two leads of Mungiu’s project—Cosmina Stratan, who plays novitiate Voichita, and Cristina Flutur, as Alina, who rages at (and feels betrayed by) Voichita’s love of God—shared the Best Actress prize. Beyond the Hills marks the film debut for both women; in her remarks, Flutur very graciously thanked “everyone who has had an opinion about [the movie].”

That line got a laugh from the journalists assembled in the Debussy, all of whom had been doing nothing but judging and hyperbolizing for the past week and a half. As for my own extolling, I would have loved to see an award extended to Holy Motors, but had to settle for that film’s angelic presence, Kylie Minogue, onstage merely as a copresenter of the Best Short Film award—a task she shared with Belgian director Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in the evening’s only delightful incongruity. But I was certainly happy that the Palme d’Or was given to Michael Haneke’s Amour, my second-favorite title in the festival. Haneke, now a two-time Palme d’Or winner, led his actress Emmanuelle Riva up to the stage; they were joined from the wings by Jean-Louis Trintignant. After all three spoke movingly, Haneke was instructed by Adrien Brody, who presented the top prize to the director with Audrey Tautou, where he needed to stand to get his picture taken. It was the evening’s first—and the festival’s last—objectionable incongruity.

Melissa Anderson

David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes. Production still. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson).

UNSPOOLING FOR THE PRESS THIS MORNING, Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, is the second of two page-to-screen transfers of high-profile American novels playing in competition. Though not as dopey as the first—Walter Salles’s version of On the Road, which screened on Wednesday—Cronenberg’s latest is uncharacteristically inert (especially when compared with his earlier inspired adaptations, 1991’s Naked Lunch and 1996’s Crash). Further to the film’s detriment, the white stretch limousine that serves as a steel-and-metal cocoon for billionaire financier Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he crosses New York to get a haircut in Cosmopolis immediately recalls the vehicle that figures so prominently in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. When Pattinson’s character wonders aloud, early in the film, “Where do all these limos spend the night?” it was impossible not to think of Carax’s answer.

The responses that Cronenberg—witty (sometimes satisfyingly barbed), thoughtful, and eloquent—gave at his press conference proved more satisfying than his film. “To me, the essence of cinema is a person, a face, speaking,” the director noted (a credo especially borne out in his previous film, last year’s masterful A Dangerous Method). Pattinson’s pretty face certainly does a lot of yakking in Cosmopolis, most of it registering as an affectless drone. Before the panel was assembled, moderator Henri Behar made this request: “Let’s try and keep vampires and bats out of the conversation.” The journos obliged, asking Pattinson not about the Twilight series but whether he, as someone who has talked openly about “the difficulties of living life in public,” saw similarities between himself and his character. Pattinson politely considered the query before becoming frustrated with himself: “I’m not the best self-analyst. I can’t seem to consciously bring anything from my life into my work. [. . .] Why can’t I answer the question—this is so annoying!” Cronenberg, who had earlier said of his star, “I always had the feeling he had never seen any of my movies,” gallantly came to the actor’s aid: “The reason you can’t answer the question is because it’s a flawed question.”

Melissa Anderson

Lee Daniels, The Paperboy, 2012, color film in 35 mm. Production stills. Left: Ward James and Jack James (Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron). Right: Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman).

“IT’S A CRAZY MOVIE. The characters are all over the place. Zac is in his underwear for half the movie—I was distracted.” This précis of Lee Daniels’s competition entry The Paperboy—and the costuming of Zac Efron—was provided by Macy Gray, one of the film’s stars, at the press conference immediately following the 8:30 AM screening. Many leaving the Grand Théâtre Lumière would not have disputed the singer-actress’s statements (one British journalist behind me made comparisons to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, the succès de scandale at Cannes in 2003). Yet Gray meant her words as praise, concluding her assessment with: “So it’s an awesome movie.”

Daniels, a producer turned director, was last at the festival with Precious (2009), his adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, which screened in Un Certain Regard. The Paperboy is another page-to-screen transfer, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 swampy noir, set in Florida in the late 1960s. Pedro Almodóvar was once interested in helming this tale of a death-row inmate (played by John Cusack), the sexed-up bottle blond who loves him (Nicole Kidman), and a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) and his kid brother (Efron) who try to help them both. I can’t imagine how the politely stylized and mildly risky Spanish director would have approached the milieu—what Gray, as a maid and the film’s narrator, describes in voice-over as “a nasty white trash swamp.” But Daniels imbues the film with his signature florid insanity, amply evident in his first film, 2005’s Shadowboxer, in which Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. play not just stepmother and stepson but also lovers and fellow assassins.

Gray wasn’t exaggerating about how often we see Efron in his tighty-whities; press-conference moderator Henri Behar asked the young actor if he was “uncomfortable” with being so “determinedly eroticized.” Efron’s response typified most of the vague, anodyne responses—and tortured metaphors—of the cast (save for Gray): “I think it’s like life; this character was learning the ways of the world.” But Daniels took umbrage at the choice of adjective: “Eroticized? Eroticized? He’s good-looking. The camera can’t help but love him. And I’m gay!”

So, too, is McConaughey’s character, Ward James. Though I haven’t read the source novel, I’m fairly certain that Ward’s sexuality and his particular carnal appetite—bottoming to black men who hog-tie and beat him to a pulp—is solely the intervention of Daniels (who coscripted with Dexter). Of his closeted character, McConaughey said he “was never carrying a moral on my shoulder” but instead “hanging my hat on the architecture of reality.” After more nonsensical, hazy talk from the performers about “giv[ing] over to something” and “facing our fears,” Gray offered the most precise anecdote about preparing for The Paperboy: “Even when you go to the bathroom, you pee like your character.”

Melissa Anderson

Leos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Edith Scob.

“I DON’T KNOW if there is a French translation for bonkers . . . ,” a British reporter opened her question to Leos Carax at today’s press conference for Holy Motors, which screened last night for the press to thunderous applause. (I can’t recall a film ever being received so rapturously at Cannes.) Part of this enthusiasm may have been simple recognition of the fact that the auteur had finally completed a film after a long hiatus: Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature since 1999’s Pola X (he is best known for his 1991 film maudit, The Lovers on the Bridge). But it was also a display of gratitude for being so thoroughly transported by such an intensely personal, formally virtuosic work.

Operating on the logic of dreams and emotions, Holy Motors—or rather, the experience of watching it—is nearly impossible to summarize. Carax himself, clad in pajamas, appears in the film’s opening scenes, walking through a corridor that leads to a theater. That prologue segues to Denis Lavant—the director’s longtime collaborator—playing a man named Oscar who inhabits eleven different characters (“In my contract, there were ten,” the sinewy, simian actor noted at the press conference), including an assassin, a performer who rehearses a motion-capture sex scene, and a feral leprechaun who is cradled while naked (and with an erection) in the lap of Eva Mendes. Oscar is driven from appointment to appointment in Paris in a white-stretch limo by the soignée Celine (Edith Scob); not on his itinerary is an unplanned reunion on the roof of the abandoned Samaritaine department store with a woman played by Kylie Minogue. When the pop goddess sings “Who Were We?,” a number cowritten by Carax, Holy Motors soars, the song’s melancholy and remorse paradoxically transformed into uplift. (“I stripped myself of being Kylie [. . .] to pretty much be a blank canvas for Leos,” Minogue said—a strategy that worked magnificently.) Oscar returns to his family—two bonobo monkeys—and parked limousines converse with one another.

Literal-minded journalists demanded to know what it all “meant,” but Carax refused, for the most part, to humor them. To the reporter who asked “what the scene with Eva Mendes was about,” he replied, “How would I know?” The director proferred a few evocative definitions, describing cinema as “a beautiful island with a cemetery” and the general moviegoing public as “a bunch of people who will be dead soon.” Later, Carax did provide something of a log line: “This is a film about a man and the experience of being alive”—a perfect summation of an unclassifiable, expansive, breathtaking movie.

Melissa Anderson