When you're watching up to five films each day at a festival, your mind can play tricks when you reflect back on what you've seen. There's great risk of plotlines converging if you don't hastily scrawl notes in the dark.
I wonder if the Cannes jury has the same problem? Let's hope pen torches are produced at Jury screenings, lest Nanni Moretti, Diane Kruger, Ewan McGregor et al, lose track of which film had the tissue-papered bag of testicles in it… ('Was that the one that also had the dead dog in the garden?,” a flummoxed Jean-Paul Gaultier might enquire during deliberations. 'And correct me if I'm wrong, but that nice old lady who died in the Haneke film… Brad Pitt shot her, oui?')
Okay, perhaps not (none of those moments are easily forgotten). Either way, they have less than a week now to confer about it, now that the Official Competition has just crossed the mid-way point. So here's a précis of the good, the bad… and the grisly (there has been much, much blood spilt on screen this week), of those in the race for the Palme d'Or.
Killing Them Softly
Little known fact: the global downturn is taking its toll on the underworld too, with even the highest paid hitmen having to take a pay cut. Andrew Dominik's nostalgic, darkly funny film draws sharp parallels between a) card sharks and hitmen, and b) the rats that ruined Wall Street and the politicians spewing empty sound bites about putting things right. It overmilks the metaphor a bit, but this fresh take on the mob genre, like last year's Drive before it, is a hyper-violent, stylised addition to the Competition line-up, and a really, really fun watch. (Also features an excellent performance by Ben Mendelsohn as a grubby Aussie smackhead.)
For what 'buzz' is worth, it's building around Michael Haneke and his spare telling of an elderly lady's demise, and the husband who supports her through it. Subject matter is ripe for sentimentality but the end product is anything but.
Boosting the 'Australian directors with gangster films' genre in the lineup, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's story of Prohibition-era rum-runners comes off second best in the comparison to his countryman Dominik's Killing Them Softly. Good actors make the most of their archetypes and some clunky dialogue, but to borrow the metaphor of its subject matter, Lawless gives a quick buzz rather than a lingering high.
Mads Mikkelsen might just grab an acting award for his pent-up performance as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who becomes the target of collective hysteria about paedophilia. Writer/director Tomas Vinterberg (Festen) handles the concept of 'thought as a virus' with expert care; he spares us the hook of an easy villain, and it's all the more disturbing for the way it demonstrates how due process can, with a few leading questions, entrap an innocent man. (Fanny the canine companion may also get a look-in for the 'Palme Dog' prize, which is an actual thing that really exists here in Cannes.)
The Angel's Share
A young thug strives to reform his ways but finds that old habits are hard to break. It doesn't help much that your foes lie in wait, with a stated intent to rearrange your innards, given half a chance. With characteristic gallows humour, director Ken Loach walks in the shoes of a rough diamond caught in a slipstream of repetitive violence (with full disclosure of the very bad things his lead has done). In a purely Glaswegian twist, salvation is found in the prized contents of a rare barrel of whisky. It's a drink of the sort to make brawny men swoon – and pay over 1 million pounds for the privilege of a swill, and it makes for an entertaining new premise for a (liquid) gold heist.
Rust and Bone
Opinions are split about the merits of Jacques Audiard's melodrama about friendship, French healthcare, and killer whales. Many critics are tipping it for Palme d'Or (UK's Guardian says it 'Deserves to be awash with awards”). We were less convinced, but you can decide for yourself when Hopscotch releases it into Australian cinemas later this year.
Beyond The Hills
Your correspondent freely confesses that it was somewhere in the middle of this near-3-hour sparse, largely wordless film that the effects of a 30-hour flight started to surface. However, up to that point, the true story of a religious cult and its deadly attempts to exorcise a non-believer of her demons, showed early promise. But when it left an intriguing sub-plot untouched in favour of an examination of the cult's daily routine, it lost its grip and it was 'hello, jetlag'.
The Cannes Film Festival runs until May 27 in France.