Cannes is generally a pretty classy place, often to an intimidating extent — at some point, the bow ties and Gucci and diamond cuff links make you want to hang up your dress shirt as a white flag and wear pajamas to all your screenings. (Props, though, to the Italian press bro rocking the T-shirt-and-bow-tie look.)
But the festival's refined peaks are also accompanied by astonishing displays of tackiness. The Cannes Carlton Hotel, with its $1,000-a-night price tag and starlets cocktailing on the patio, sure sounds nice, until you walk by and see Sacha Baron Cohen's giant Dictator face plastered all over the palatial architecture. (Spend a few hundred thousand advertising dollars, and it could be your face!)
Fireworks displays over the water are fun, until you're on the sixth consecutive one and you realize it's just studios attempting to show that theirs is the biggest. (Not sure if the wimpy M80s and bottle rockets issuing from one yacht were a parody or an indicator that someone's getting fired.) And don't get me started on Shia LaBeouf's hair: At the Lawless press conference, a Polish reporter asked me, "What do you call that American animal that goes through trash and bites people at night?"
So it's fitting that one of the best films at Cannes is about the true power of tackiness. You might even say that Pablo Larrain's No was filmed in Tacky-Vision; Larrain painstakingly re-creates the bleary colors and VHS fuzz of cheapo '80s TV for his satire of media culture and politics.
The film focuses on the election into which Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was forced during the late '80s, when a transitional committee mandated a daily 15 minutes of TV advertising both for and against Pinochet's re-election.
At first, the "No" team wants to run a campaign based on facts, research and footage of the horrors of Pinochet's rule. But a whiz-kid ad man (Gael Garcia Bernal) thinks that the advertising needs to match "the context of the times," and starts creating a truly effective campaign — one based on jingles, raunchy humor and frolicking celebrities. The "Yes" team soon adapts, starting an ad war that becomes as momentous as it is frivolous.
Larrain strikes a tricky balance here. On one hand, this is a story of true heroism: Facing steep odds in an election generally assumed to be fixed, the film's ad team fights against constant government intimidation as it creates a campaign to inspire millions. On the other hand, this is a team that's fighting political corruption with cultural corruption: Though Bernal's character and his company try to maintain a substantive thread in their work, you get the sense that we're seeing the birth pangs of a scarily familiar and substance-free political discourse, one whose dumb power is thoroughly evident. (I still can't get their pro-freedom jingle "Happiness is Coming" out of my head.) It's a viciously funny satire anchored by a smartly low-key performance from Bernal. And the fact that it isn't in competition, but in the Director's Fortnight festival sidebar, is a crime.
Crime in the competition has so far been represented by more standard efforts like John Hillcoat's Lawless, the first American competition premiere. This story of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers (played by LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) attempts to explore the distance between deep-fried outlaw myth and unglamorous reality, a la The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But it's ultimately too half-hearted to be anything but another tall tale itself. (Rumor has it that the Weinstein Company re-cut the film before release, which might explain both the film's schizophrenia and the giggles in the theater when the Weinstein logo popped up in the opening credits.)
But if Lawless is ultimately a simplistic marshals-vs.-moonshiners story, it is an uncommonly colorful one. As the chief lawman pursuing the brothers, Guy Pearce is a cartoon of evil, but at least he's a Looney Tune at its zaniest. With a deep-dish Chicago accent, a complete lack of eyebrows and an extreme irritation when blood gets spattered on his immaculate waistcoat, he comes off like the love child of John Waters and Heath Ledger's Joker.
The filmmaking has its moments, too. Screenwriter Nick Cave does double duty as music coordinator, contributing a killer soundtrack with bluegrass covers of Velvet Underground songs, and Hillcoat pulls together a few astonishing moments of visual lyricism, like a scene of forbidden courtship that turns a Mennonite church into a cauldron of religious guilt and lust.
It's almost universally agreed upon, though, that the film of the festival so far is Michael Haneke's Amour (Love). It starts in a way anyone familiar with Haneke's confrontational style (from films like Cache or The White Ribbon) might expect — police ram through a locked door, discovering a dead elderly woman on a bed, her corpse adorned with wildflowers.
But the jarring intro is a bit of a bait-and-switch move, and Haneke unreels a film whose title will turn out to be earnest instead of ironic. (See Funny Games.) We flash back to the sophisticated, aging couple Anne and Georges (French cinema legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant), who live happily together until she has a stroke.
What follows is an unflinching account of Anne's slide toward death, and Georges' attempts to care for her. Haneke's portrayal of physical degradation is harrowing, but the reason this is an essential film is his uniquely observed view of the emotions surrounding an agonizing process. In this film, an old friend's kind word of support can start to seem like a confirmation of impending doom, the concern of a daughter (Isabelle Huppert) can burden as much as it supports, and love can start to be less about offering sweet nothings than about enduring screams of pain in the night.
Georges at one point tells a story about a film that deeply moved him — he remembers the emotion, even if he remembers almost nothing about the movie itself. That story gets at the achingly romantic heart of Amour, which explores how love remains intact even as its sources start to fade away.
Next time: A Japanese-language gem directed by an Iranian; Brad Pitt joins the mob; and the only place in the festival where you can find Piranhaconda and Vampire Boys 2: The New Brood. Plus instant after-screening reactions on Twitter.