Cannes round-up: Old age and other cruel acts (war, crime, casting Kidman)

Will Haneke's 'Love' scoop tonight's Palme d'Or? Perhaps. But at least Cannes is sure of its prize dud...

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'The cinema is like an island, a beautiful island with a big cemetery." Thus spake the French director Leos Carax at his Cannes press conference, and no, I have no idea what he means. But there were moments this year when Cannes felt more like a cemetery with the occasional island of beauty. The competition line-up was possibly the most blue chip in years, crammed with major auteurs. But while few of them fell flat on their faces, there was also too little of the brilliance you hope for (and certainly no Artist-style bundle of pleasure).

Still, a patchy competition boasted one platinum-edged masterpiece, and you won't be surprised to learn that it was from the revered Austrian maestro Michael Haneke. Love is a severe but unexpectedly tender drama that tackles cinema's ultimate taboo – old age. French veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play an elderly couple whose life starts to collapse when she falls ill. It's a painful film, yet I wouldn't call it harrowing, because Haneke's sure dramatic touch holds the agony at a distance even as he engages your compassion. The pair's performances are magnificent and audacious: it's not just a dramatic challenge but a personal one to play a role in your eighties that requires you to enact the indignities of age. A compelling and humane memento mori, Love dispels the myth that Haneke's cinema is soulless.

A few days ago, I'd have thought Love a shoo-in for the Palme d'Or. But now Haneke has one serious rival: In the Fog, by Belarusian-born Sergei Loznitsa. This stark, slow-paced film is set in the USSR in 1942, and interweaves the stories of three men caught up in the struggle against German occupation. Possibly the quietest war film ever, In the Fog paints in simple terms a complex picture of survival, compromise, betrayal and integrity. With photography recalling 19th-century Russian painting, the film is impeccably acted and its clarity and economy are positively Tolstoyan.

The US films were of variable standard. On the Road was Walter Salles's orthodox but honourable adaptation of Jack Kerouac's book, and captures the sprawl of the Beat bible, if not its heady urgency. The show is stolen in eccentric style by Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams, playing characters based on William Burroughs and his wife, while Kristen Stewart makes an impression doing things that Bella would have blushed at in Twilight. With all that sex, drink, dope and travel, heaven knows how they found time to read Proust. Mind you, they never get beyond Volume One.

The best American offering, though, was Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik. It's the story of two sleazeballs who pull a heist, and the hitmen (a very zen Brad Pitt, a magnificently shlubby James Gandolfini) hired to make them pay. The film is a moodily photographed, hyper-violent sprawl that catches the moral complexity and baroque verbal snap more usually seen in TV series such as The Wire.

It was a mixed year for international auteurs, with some respected names booed at press shows. Two names who mystified with somewhat experimental films were Iran's Abbas Kiarostami – the gorgeous but slight Tokyo-set Like Someone In Love – and Mexico's Carlos Reygadas. His Post Tenebras Lux was all-out experimental, a fuzzily shot package that resembled a fictionalised set of home movies (it features his two small children, both seemingly unaware they're in a film). There's barely a story, but the film – ostensibly about a family living in the country – also involves a swingers' sauna, a rugby game in England, a surprise beheading, and a luminous red CGI devil. I have no idea what it was about, but its unstructured boldness – and at moments, sheer beauty – won me over.

I wish I felt as positively about the competition's other wild card. Holy Motors is the comeback by French cinema's reclusive legend (in his own mind, at least) Leos Carax. It's less a feature than a series of surreal turns, featuring a man who spends his day driving around Paris in a limo and donning various disguises (beggar woman, banker, deranged goblin, hitman), thereby illustrating the proposition that one man in his time plays many parts, and all that. Carax himself appears in a nightmare prelude, as if to anoint himself the Jean Cocteau de nos jours, and Kylie Minogue sings. Some impressionable souls are swooning over its visionary greatness, but it would be a travesty if Holy Motors won the Palme. Still, there are some pleasures among the solemn nonsense: a rocking accordion interlude and a bizarre dance sequence in ultraviolet light. And Denis Lavant could well win best actor for his protean, manic turn as a sort of metaphysical Lon Chaney.

In the sidebar sections, one notable pleasure was a British black comedy – Sightseers by Ben Wheatley, who made the creepily inspired Kill List. Sightseers involves two misfits who tour the UK's odder sites of interest (such as tram and pencil museums) and rack up a formidable slate of killings en route. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram play the pair, and their performances – and self-scripted dialogue – are priceless. Think of Nuts in May – but really, dangerously nuts.

There's always room for a prize dud at Cannes, and this year has an especially juicy one – The Paperboy, directed by Lee Daniels, who made the misery-memoir drama Precious. His follow-up is a thriller set in 1960s Florida, and stars Nicole Kidman as a brassy sexpot besotted with a murder suspect. It's insanely overheated, with a messily thought-out civil rights subtext, and Macy Gray voicing an unbelievably clumsy narration ("Now pay attention, 'cause this is where it gets complicated"). Kidman goes to town with her Southern-fried slut routine, in one scene pissing on Zac Efron (and who hasn't wished to do that at some point?). It's a terrible film, but Daniels has developed a style that's inept, yet entirely his own. Right now, he's arguably the best bad director in the world.