Haneke's monster feeds the beast

Mon, May 21, 2012, 01:00

Michael Haneke doesn’t want to make a scene, Nick Cave mulls over moonshiners, and Danes get hysterical at Cannes 2012

AT TIMES, the Cannes press pack takes on the quality of a massed organism from a sophisticated science-fiction novel. The beast – comprised of many linked minds – wanders La Croisette in search of stimulation. If none comes it begins to wilt.

As the main competition eased into the weekend, Cannes-Thing began to look green at its extremities. There had been good films, but we had not yet been shaken in our seats.

BEYOND THE HILLS ****

Directed by Cristian Mungiu. Starring Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta 150 min, playing in competition

Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills came close to doing the business. The Romanian director’s stubbornly slow-moving film tells the tale of two old friends (perhaps ex-lovers) who reunite catastrophically at a remote convent. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has decided to dedicate herself to God. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who recently returned from Germany, wants her old pal to join her working on a boat in the west. The girls grew up in an orphanage and – teasingly, coyly – the director hints that they may have suffered abuse. Alina takes refuge in her piety. Voichita appears to be drifting towards mental collapse.

Making hypnotic use of a largely static camera, the director – winner of the 2007 Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – cautiously sets up a conflict between the secular and the spiritual. The convent’s faintly sinister patriarch accepts the notion of mental illness, but still feels the need to perform an exorcism. Frequently grouped in static huddles, lit by blank winter light, the nuns often take on the form of benign vampires.

The performances – particularly the contained Flutur – are exemplary, all the more so because Mungiu reveals so little of their inner lives. To an even greater extent than in 4 Months . . . this singular director refuses to offer judgment or omniscient analysis. The film abounds with striking images and dry, dry humour: when Alina is invited to write down her sins, she finds that virtually every thought and action is forbidden by this God.

When viewing austere east European pictures at Cannes any complaint about excessive length risks singling the writer out as a lightweight. But, at two hours and 40 minutes, Beyond the Hills undoubtedly outstays its welcome. The film remains, however, a serious contender.

LAWLESS ***

Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce 115 min, playing in competition

The same cannot, alas, be said of John Hillcoat’s Lawless. Scripted by Nick Cave, who wrote the same director’s superb The Proposal, the new picture goes among moonshiners in prohibition-era America. The boys have a top flight cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are all in place. The scenario is attractive. But, though the film is invigoratingly violent and beautifully designed, it lacks narrative structure and features a few too many outbreaks of absurdity. Shia LaBeouf and Hardy play, respectively, Jack and Forrest Bondurant, two brothers running illicit spirits in Virginia. One is young and naive. The other is fearsomely invincible. Think of Michael and Sonny at the beginning of The Godfather and you’re halfway there. The younger man establishes a relationship with mobster Floyd Banner (an underused Gary Oldman). But a new lawman has arrived in the extravagant form of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).

What is Mr Pearce up to? Speaking in a strange fluty voice, camply pulling on gloves like Marlene Dietrich in a Weimar revue, he offers us a villain from a different, more fantastic movie genre. The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a less heightened figure.

The picture works well enough after a HBO fashion, but it never establishes forward momentum and – having confirmed Forrest’s indestructibility – Cave and Hillcoat don’t allow in sufficient jeopardy.

It passes the time. But too many tantalising opportunities have been squandered.

THE HUNT ****

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp 111 min, playing in competition

Thomas Vinterberg, Danish director of Festen, has been in the wilderness for a while. But The Hunt marks a real return to form. A surprisingly mainstream effort, the picture stars the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher whose life falls apart when he is wrongly accused of sexual abuse. Vinterberg rather brilliantly deflects blame away from the child whose casual remark generated the witch-hunt and on to the adults who allow emotion to overpower logic. The picture accrues raw tension remorselessly, but it also has serious points to make about the immaturity that lurks within supposedly civilised grown-ups. The speed with which the hysteria builds is, perhaps, just a little implausible. The Hunt is, however, a singularly gripping piece of work.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD *****

Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly 92 min, playing in Un Certain Regard competition

The Cannes-Thing still remained slightly dissatisfied. Benh Zeitlin’s highly spiced Beasts of the Southern Wild did blow quite a few minds. A spicy, African-American mix of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness, the picture follows a pair of displaced Louisianans as they flee rising waters on an improvised raft. It is wildly cinematic. It fills every frame with innovation. But that picture was only playing in the premier sidebar Un Certain Regard. The beast began to get antsy.

AMOUR ****

Directed by Michael Haneke Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert 125 min, playing in competition

Then, yesterday morning, we got to see Michael Haneke’s Amour. The press emerged from the early screening to find grim clouds blowing icily across the Côte d’Azur. Even the weather seemed to agree we had just experienced something extraordinary.

Amour begins with an elderly couple, Anne and Georges, attending a classical concert. The next day, Eva experiences a brief blackout. It transpires that she has had a stroke. She continues to decline – thrown into a misery of desperate bellowing – while Georges stoically tries to cope with her increasing distance. In an early aside, Anne describes her husband as “a monster”. He is certainly robust in his attitude to his wife’s illness: in one disturbing moment, he turns to violence; he ends up barring his slightly prissy daughter (Isabelle Huppert) from the sick bed. But his icy devotion is never in doubt.

It is a shame Cannes rarely hands out prizes to more than one film. If Amour wins one of the top awards (which it almost certainly will) then Emmanuelle Riva, who offers a heroic turn as Anne, may miss out on best actress. There will surely be no better performance this fortnight.

Best remembered for appearing in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour back in 1959, Riva somehow manages to suck the life from her own face over the course of the picture. It is asking a lot to demand that an actor make something watchable of blankness. Riva rises to the challenge admirably.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, who won best actor here in 1969, is no less impressive as Georges. His face never breaks. He does not give into rages. Torment leaks quietly from each pore.

Amour does, however, belong to the director. It is saying something to argue that this is the most austere film yet from the great Austrian. Pictures such as The Piano Teacher and Hidden did, at least, have their moments of extravagant blood-letting. Shot in gunmetal shades by the great Iranian Darius Khondji, featuring a largely static camera, the film progresses entirely through small, desperate moments. When the inevitable catastrophe arrives it rushes by in a hurried flash.

Haneke has long been glibly dubbed “the new Ingmar Bergman”. They are, of course, entirely different directors. But, while watching Amour, it is impossible not to think of morbid Bergman pictures such as Cries and Whispers and Through a Glass Darkly. Haneke’s tone is even more reserved and even less hysterical. One senses a director desperately afraid of making a scene.

If one were to offer criticism, one might note that, considering the subject matter, Amour is a little too cleanly scrubbed. Protracted deaths usually involve a few more bodily emissions. That lack of grime does, however, make it easier to focus on the picture’s emotional core.

Amour is surely now early favourite for the Palme d’Or.

The beast is satisfied.