Cannes, France — Whether it’s the weather, the traffic or the movies, perhaps the best word to describe the Cannes Film Festival this year is “stuck.”
From the outset, when organizers announced the directors competing for the festival’s top honor, Cannes seemed stalled in a past era: Of the 22 films competing for the Palme d’Or this week, not one is directed by a woman, a nod to the mythical image of the heroic auteur that Cannes is famous for championing in its 66-year history.
Of the venerated directors being honored here over the course of the week — from Alain Resnais to Roman Polanski — the dominant feeling so far has been one of fond looks back rather than bold leaps forward, with little ground being broken in form or ideas.
Although Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age picaresque “Moonrise Kingdom” launched the festival on May 16 on a whimsical, adventurous note, the movie hewed to the director’s signature controlled, ultra-composed style and thematic preoccupations with difficult families, precocious children and young love.
Once the film screenings got underway in earnest, audiences were introduced to a series of protagonists mired in situations out of their control or their destructive habits of self-deception. (It was surely a coincidence that a patch of rainy, windy and chilly weather moved in and refused to budge until Wednesday.)
In Jacques Audiard’s “Rust & Bone,” Marion Cotillard delivered a raw, stripped-down performance as a physically vital woman forced to come to grips with new limitations after a debilitating accident. In the visually rich but psychically despairing “Paradise: Love,” Austrian actress Margarete Tiesel delivered a physically fearless performance as a depressive, aging woman whose search for sexual gratification while on vacation in Kenya grows only more desperate and unsavory. In Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah’s otherwise obvious and unfocused “After the Battle,” actress Nahed El Sebai portrayed a put-upon Muslim wife and mother with bracing fire and spirit. In Thomas Vinterberg’s well-crafted but banal thriller “The Hunt,” Mads Mikkelsen delivered an equally impressive performance as a kindergarten teacher who’s trapped in a web of social calumny when he’s accused of sexually abusing a student.
By far the most affecting and heroic portrait of stuckness has been Michael Haneke’s elegant, austerely shattering marital drama “Amour” — so far the odds-on favorite to win the Palme d’Or on Sunday — in which Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a man whose wife is slowly dying, in an austere portrait of devotion that Haneke has conceived with a warmth and compassion usually missing from his work.
And it hasn’t just been the characters on-screen who have seemed stuck: In some cases, the filmmakers seem to be stalled, with directors such as Matteo Garrone following up his taut 2008 crime drama “Gomorrah” with “Reality,” a derivative, tonally uneven semi-comedy about reality TV. The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami may be congenitally unable to make an uninteresting movie, but his movie here, “Like Someone in Love,” represents a minor work, more a series of flawlessly composed shots than a fully realized film.
Then there are those filmmakers who return to Cannes lugging the burden of past masterpieces behind them: Audiard’s “Rust & Bone” is a fine film but not nearly as impactful as his 2009 prison drama, “A Prophet.” The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for his riveting, naturalistic character study “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” allowed in an interview that “you can only surprise people once.” Indeed, Mungiu’s fans were duly impressed but not astonished by his new movie, “Beyond the Hills,” another superbly framed drama — like the earlier film, made up of one-take scenes — about two female friends facing an extreme situation, this time set in a rural monastery and dealing with Orthodox Christianity, exorcism and the limits of faith.
If the European directors help hold up the tent for art-house fare, American studios provided their fair share of genre: The Weinstein company brought the Prohibition-era moonshine-and-madness pulper “Lawless” and “Killing Them Softly,” starring Brad Pitt as criminal-cum-middle-manager Jackie Cogan. Both movies were directed by filmmakers with at least one sensational film in their résumés — John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) and Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), respectively. Both were adequate but unexceptional examples of style deployed in the service of thin, generic substance.
As group portraits of men of action — and they are men, with women being either thoroughly useless or literally absent in both films — “Lawless” and “Killing Them Softly” seemed stuck themselves in the tired tropes of an exhausted form, even if Dominik made labored efforts to link Cogan’s seedy, greedy trade with such current events as the financial meltdown and political debates about Darwinian capitalism. (Cannes veteran Ken Loach set his crime movie “The Angels’ Share” amidst economic malaise as well, although he delivered one of his rare lighthearted turns in this story of petty criminals who turn to drink in search of their fortunes.)
Even “On the Road,” Walter Salles’s respectful-to-a-fault adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel, never managed to capture the spirit of abandon and spontaneity of a book dedicated to the proposition of getting out of the rut, literary or otherwise. Still, Salles deserves credit for skilfully dramatizing the events depicted in it and, unlike Kerouac and the Beats themselves, doing justice to the women they routinely mistreated. (Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and Amy Adams co-star in the film with Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley.)
Far more Kerouacian in its explosive, unbridled inventiveness was “Holy Motors,” Leos Carax’s surreal meditation on surveillance, performance and the obsolescence of objective reality, in which the chameleon-like French actor Denis Lavant delivers a breathtaking portrayal of an actor who performs multiple roles for an audience of no one — and everyone.
With this mesmerizing, amusing, maddeningly opaque dreamscape, Carax committed himself wholeheartedly to the kind of risk, resourcefulness and exploration that Cannes should be seeking out and celebrating. Unlike so many of his colleagues and their films here, his was anything but stuck.
The Cannes Film Festival concludes on Sunday.