Late in Tale of Cinema, the oddly reflexive new film by Korean master Hong Sangsoo, a man and a woman sit together on a bed, still spent from recent frantic lovemaking. Their impromptu coupling was both inspired by and patterned upon a sex scene in a celebrated short film made a decade earlier. The woman, now a famous actress, had played the film's female lead; its screenplay had been based on the romantic misadventures of the man, who attended film school with the director. Dissatisfied with life's imitation of art's imitation of life, the woman looks quizzically at the man and utters what was easily the funniest line I heard at this year's Cannes Film Festival (though I was the only person in the jam-packed Grand Théâtre Lumière who laughed): "I don't think you really understood that movie."
Tell me about it. This year's festival, which ended Sunday after 11 days of the best that world cinema has to offer at the moment, prompted a record number of dunderheaded misinterpretations. Not the least of these were various wacko theories regarding the final shot of Michael Haneke's pointed political allegory Hidden, starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a married couple terrorized by anonymously sent surveillance videos of their home. Haneke, whose 1997 film Funny Games more or less challenged the viewer to walk out of the theater in disgust, is a chilly intellectual formalist disinclined to offer answers, much less catharsis. Nonetheless, many viewers, notably Roger Ebert, were convinced that they'd spotted a clue to the film's central mystery literally hidden behind the closing credits, which crawl over a mundane medium-distance shot of kids exiting a school building. Presumably these are the same folks who expended valuable time and energy 11 years ago wondering what on earth was in the Pulp Fiction briefcase. Suffice it to say that Haneke's concerns don't extend to who dunnit—he's too busy plumbing the repressed guilt and oppressive entitlement of the bourgeoisie. Still, the film works so beautifully as a thriller that it's somewhat disappointing when Western Union finally turns up, delivering the film's message in capital letters.
Pegged early on as the likely Palme d'Or winner, Hidden ultimately had to settle for the Best Director prize (and a U.S. distribution deal, courtesy of Sony Classics). Instead, the jury, headed this year by two-time Palme recipient Emir Kusturica (Underground), bestowed its top honor upon Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's riveting The Child, a critical favorite that was assumed to be out of contention because the Belgian brothers had struck Cannes gold only six years ago for Rosetta. Typically urgent yet austere, the film follows Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a young petty thief whose girlfriend (Déborah Franois) has just given birth to their infant son. Warm and loving, but also almost psychotically pragmatic, Bruno promptly finds a way to turn his progeny into a commodity—but that's just the beginning of a harrowing moral journey that changes direction virtually every time the camera cuts to a new angle. Working at such a consistent level of low-key excellence that even hardcore cinephiles all but yawn at each terrific new effort, the Dardennes have been in grave danger of fading from public consciousness. With luck, The Child—which plays like Terminator 2 by arthouse standards—will get more of a push than 2002's The Son.
Questions of paternity were much on the mind of 2005's crop of auteurs. Back in the early 1980s, Wim Wenders helped Jim Jarmusch get his start as a director by donating leftover film stock. This year, both filmmakers turned up at Cannes with what basically amounted to the same movie: a middle-aged emotional cripple (Sam Shepard in Wenders' Don't Come Knocking; Bill Murray in Jarmusch's Broken Flowers) goes in search of one or more old flames (Jessica Lange turns up in both) and discovers that he may unwittingly have fathered a son decades earlier. Murray's melancholy tears-of-a-clown routine is starting to calcify, but audiences were mostly charmed by Jarmusch's blatant bid for mainstream acceptance, and Kusturica & Co. awarded his harmless, intermittently witty picture the Grand Prix (or second prize). Only the French, however, were prepared to tolerate and/or overlook Knocking's unmodulated performances, jarring contrivances and elegiac bullshit.
Elsewhere, the films in competition found room for a tyrannical dad (in Wang Xiaoshuai's Shanghai Dreams); an unassuming paterfamilias compelled to defend his homestead (in David Cronenberg's bizarre, often electrifying A History of Violence); and even a Great White Father, as Bryce Dallas Howard struggled to teach democratic principles to former slaves in Lars von Trier's tendentious and tedious Dogville sequel, Manderlay. What on earth would juror Toni Morrison make of Manderlay, many wondered? Some apparently expected to hear garments rent or hallelujahs shouted from the back of the Lumière. As it turned out, controversy was in regrettably short supply this year, with the only remotely divisive film in competition being Battle in Heaven, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' follow-up to his 2002 fest favorite Japón. Very nearly as pretentious as its title, it enthralled and/or alienated audiences with its juxtaposition of the grandiose and the mundane. However, even its handful of supporters seemed to feel it was a step backward, and the unsimulated blow job that opens and closes the film scarcely raised an eyebrow two years after The Brown Bunny, especially as the dick in question was too dinky to be a prosthesis.
Otherwise, virtually every screening saw a new consensus formed. Everybody agreed that To Paint or Make Love, a French sex comedy about a retired middle-aged couple who develop a latent interest in swinging, was an embarrassment. But everybody was wrong—it's a wry, sneakily subversive jab at the very middlebrow conventions people mistakenly thought it embodied. Likewise, the only argument regarding Woody Allen's fine London-set drama, Match Point, involved which movie it's Woody Allen's best since. (I plumped for Sweet and Lowdown, but can understand why some would reach all the way back to his last masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which it very strongly resembles.)
The last few movies to screen always remain question marks, if only because by that point the trades have packed up shop and the journalists are too exhausted to do much more than grunt. I heard little buzz about Tommy Lee Jones' weirdly sadistic The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, for example, and was taken by surprise when the jury awarded it two prizes, Best Actor to Jones and Best Screenplay to Guillermo Arriaga, who scrambles chronology here as meaninglessly as in his 21 Grams. (The Best Actress award went to Hanna Laslo, whose brusque energy is the only reason to see Amos Gitai's Free Zone.) As someone who's never warmed to the stylized, hushed atmospherics of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, I was startled to find myself swooning at the first section of his triptych Three Times, set in 1966—then startled again when the subsequent stories, set in 1911 and 2005, reverted to form and left me cold.
And ultimately I don't know whether to credit Japan's indefatigable Seijun Suzuki or incipient dementia with the crowd's giddy response to Princess Raccoon. An adaptation of a beloved operatic folk tale, it screened on the festival's final day and looked like nothing so much as Japan's answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only more eclectic and more perverse. I don't think I really understood that movie. But it was well worth traveling thousands of miles to see.