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

Pablo Larraín, No, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal).

A FEW YEARS AGO, a French friend introduced me to an invaluable word: cinephage, or one who indiscriminately consumes—and is consumed by—the movies. Rodney Ascher’s dense yet nimble cine-essay Room 237, which screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight, highlights the results of gorging on and being consumed by one movie in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterwork The Shining (1980). Five obsessive experts on Kubrick’s film spin out their theories at length (they are heard but never seen), including journalist Bill Blakemore, who declares that The Shining takes on nothing less than “the nightmare of history.” Specifically, Blakemore believes Kubrick is addressing the slaughter of American Indians, proving his thesis by pointing out, among other clues, the prominent placement of cans of Calumet baking powder with its Indian-head logo. Ascher illustrates his fixated interlocutors’ ideas with scenes not just from The Shining (sometimes run in slo-mo, occasionally backward) but other Kubrick works (2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut feature prominently). Blakemore proves to be Room 237’s most persuasive speaker; least convincing (and most unhinged) is Jay Weidner, who insists that The Shining serves as Kubrick’s acknowledgment of his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 moon-landing photos.

Another “nightmare of history”—the Pinochet regime—is the focus of Pablo Larraín’s superb No, also screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. The final installment (following 2008’s Tony Manero and 2010’s Post Mortem) in Larraín’s trilogy on the Chilean dictator, No is set in 1988, when Pinochet, bowing to international pressure, called for a referendum to determine whether he could extend his rule for another eight years. Those who want the tyrant gone approach advertising executive René (Gael García Bernal, in his finest performance) to oversee the “No” campaign spots, allotted only fifteen minutes of airtime on TV (the “Sí” ads take up the remaining twenty-three-plus hours). René, the son of a political dissident—and a composite of the men involved in the actual “No” campaign—uses his savvy in peddling soda, microwaves, and soap operas to craft anti-Pinochet spots filled not with footage of brutality and torture but with rainbows, jingles, anthems, and mimes. Larraín’s re-creations of these incongruously exhilarating (I haven’t been able to get the chant “Chile, la alegría ya viene” out my head) ads are intercut with the originals themselves. That they were instrumental in leading to democratic elections in 1989 after sixteen years of oppression proved one of the most unlikely ways that a revolution could be televised.

Melissa Anderson

Abbas Kiarostami, Like Someone in Love, 2012, color film in 35 mm. Production stills. Left: Takashi and Akiko (Tadashi Okuno and Rin Takanashi). Right: Akiko (Rin Takanashi).

THE RELENTLESSLY CRUMMY WEATHER HERE—this has been by far the coldest, grayest, windiest, and wettest Cannes of recent memory—led to a near international incident last night outside the Salle Debussy, where many in the press corps had waited up to an hour in a downpour for Abbas Kiarostami’s latest Palme d’Or contender, Like Someone in Love. When the scanning of badges required for entrance (and dryness) halted momentarily, multilingual vulgarities and enraged commands erupted, all directed at the khaki-suited guards.

Sodden, grumpy journos may not have been the ideal audience for Kiarostami’s enigmatic film; some booed loudly (or worse, whistled) as the closing credits started to roll. A companion piece of sorts to the Iranian director’s previous movie, the Tuscany-set Certified Copy (2010), his latest takes place in Tokyo; similar to its predecessor, Like Someone in Love concerns role-playing and mistaken identities. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is first heard—on a long cell-phone call with her boyfriend—in an upscale bar before actually being seen; a university student studying sociology and a part-time escort, she’s is dispatched to the home of a new client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired sociology professor. (Known for his automobile-set long takes, Kiarostami stages one of his greatest during Akiko’s long taxi ride to Takashi’s house.) The elderly scholar, possessing a kind mien and walruslike mustache, has prepared a special supper for his guest, who slips into his bed naked and promptly falls asleep. Dropping her off at school the next morning, Takashi meets Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a possessive, violent mechanic. Noriaki assumes the senior gentleman is her grandfather—a misconception that neither Takashi nor Akiko disabuses him of.

Ending menacingly, Like Someone in Love has the distinction of being the most unpredictable title to screen in competition so far. “I had no idea what was going to happen from scene to scene,” a somewhat exasperated New York–based colleague said in the Debussy foyer afterward. His comment should be interpreted as high praise: Unlike the bickering couple in Certified Copy—for which an exhaustingly histrionic Juliette Binoche was awarded Best Actress at Cannes—the mysterious central trio in Like Someone in Love never wear out their welcome.

Melissa Anderson

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

THE TWO COMPETITION films that have screened so far on this uncharacteristically gloomy day have featured festival luminary Isabelle Huppert in unexpected places: in a supporting part and in South Korea. In Amour, her third collaboration with Michael Haneke, another Cannes perennial, Huppert plays Eva, the daughter of octogenarian parents, both retired music professors and still very much in love—a bond that’s tested as Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to care for Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she becomes increasingly debilitated. Huppert’s brief appearance in Amour is a rarity for the performer, who’s usually the fulcrum in all of her projects; that’s certainly the case in her first film with Haneke, The Piano Teacher (2001), for which she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Huppert-led jury presented the Palme d’Or to the Austrian director for The White Ribbon in 2009.)

At the press conference for Amour, a surprisingly tender movie from a filmmaker usually associated with sadism, Huppert seemed content to defer to Trintignant and Riva, two titans of French cinema, even while contradicting them. Entering in a black leather jacket (surely donned to ward off the rainy chill during her earlier photo call), Huppert sat on the far right of the panel. She smiled slightly as Trintignant genially—but quite convincingly—said of Haneke, who was seated to his immediate left, “I’ve never met such a demanding director. [Working with him] is a very difficult task.” Queried later, Huppert demurred: “Well, I don’t think it’s all that difficult. [. . .] I like to watch myself in Michael Haneke’s films.” But in response to a Chilean reporter’s question whether all actors in Haneke’s films suffer, her response was swift and unequivocal: “No, it’s the spectators who suffer.”

Huppert may find pleasure in watching herself on-screen, but the townspeople of Mohang, South Korea, seem really knocked out by her beauty in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, the prolific director’s thirteenth film in sixteen years—and his first to be made with a non-Korean lead. Many of Hong’s signature touches are found in his latest—intricate narrative tissue links one droll episode to the next, surrogates stand in for the director himself, copious bottles of soju are consumed—yet In Another Country forgoes much of the mortification that defines his earlier works, focusing instead on the playfulness of the stories’ architecture. Huppert plays three different women named Anne, all of whom stay at the same tiny beachside hotel and meet the same lifeguard character. “I’m on my way to the unknown path,” the third Anne—a flighty recent divorcée—says in a text message to a friend who had introduced her to a revered monk. Huppert, playing the lead in triplicate, follows suit.

Melissa Anderson

Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes. Production still.

“I RETWEETED YOUR TWEET,” said an American reporter to a British colleague behind me in antsy press scrum this morning. In response to Ulrich Seidl’s Competition entry Paradise: Love, about a fifty-year-old Austrian woman named Teresa (played by Margarethe Tiesel) on a sex holiday in Kenya, the female UK correspondent had apparently typed, “It made me ashamed to be European.”

That analysis, even at fewer than 140 characters, may not have been the most sophisticated, but the film itself was hardly more complex. Vienna-based Seidl, an equal-opportunity misanthrope known for documentary-fiction hybrids that he has likened to “staged reality,” explores the not especially original question of who is exploiting whom. (For what it’s worth, Paradise: Love treats the topic more intelligently than Laurent Cantet’s similarly themed, Haiti-set Heading South from 2005.) As they waddle along the sand, Teresa and the other middle-aged, corpulent Austrian women she befriends on her vacation cackle among themselves over their racist remarks (they refer to the Kenyan men they meet as “beasts,” “shiny as bacon rind,” or “difficult to tell apart”). The young African beach vendors who sell tchotchkes and their bodies to white women—and who are played in Seidl’s film by nonprofessional actors with firsthand knowledge of the trade—charm these fleshy, pasty Frauen by making them feel desirable, a service that’s eventually followed by importunate demands for cash. And so Paradise: Love proceeds: a protracted cycle of mutual postcolonial debasement.

Another Palme d’Or contender, Matteo Garrone’s Reality, also highlighted sky-high BMI in the euro zone. Gregarious Neapolitan fishmonger and part-time scammer Luciano (Aniello Arena) is urged by his family—a clan that includes several fatties—to try out for Big Brother. After traveling to Rome to audition for the show at Cinecittà, Luciano becomes increasingly consumed with making the final cut. “I feel like I’ve seen that movie before,” a colleague observed on the Rue d’Antibes after the screening. Indeed, Reality recalls not only other satires about simpletons desperate for stardom, like Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), but also Erik Gandini’s 2009 documentary on the Italian obsession for stardom, Videocracy. Though Garrone’s project may not be sui generis, occasional sharp touches—such as the recurrence of a Grande Fratello alum who stirs crowds into a frenzy with his English tagline, “Never give up!”—enliven a sometimes monotonous comedy. If nothing else, the film mirrors the distorted reality I’ll be living in for the next ten days.

Melissa Anderson