The Curse of the Second Palme d'Or
My Cannes prediction wasn’t exactly right but I wasn’t too far off either. I had considered Michael Haneke’s Amour as just the sort of film that would appeal to jury president Nanni Morreti but didn’t think Haneke would be rewarded for two films in a row. By all accounts, Amour is a worthy winner and I look forward to seeing it; the rest of the winners largely fitted in my theory of sturdy, emotionally strong dramas being favoured by Moretti (and, yes, I still maintain that the jury president sways the collective vote in a big way). Moretti’s countryman Matteo Garrone won the Grand Prix du Jury for the second time with his reality TV comedy-drama Reality and Ken Loach took the Jury Prize. Christian Mungiu was another repeat winner — his Beyond the Hills took the screenwriting and best female acting prizes, while Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of a man wrongly accused of paedophilia in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt took the male acting prize. Carlos Reygadas was one of the few formalist filmmakers to be favoured, for Post Tenebras Lux; Leos Carax’s Holy Motors had its many champions but it was always a stretch to buck the trend and take one of the top prizes.
Haneke is now the sixth filmmaker (if we count the Dardenne brothers as one) to win a second Palme d’Or, after Francis Ford Coppola, Billie August, Emir Kusturica, Shohei Imamura and the Belgian siblings. What is striking about that list is how few of them have made good films in recent years. Imamura made two films and a short contribution to 11’9"01 September 11 before his death at the age of 80 in 2006 but all the others are still alive. Drained after the ordeal of making Apocalypse Now, which won him his second Palme d’Or in 1979, Coppola scaled down his enterprise with a series of modest but intelligent productions in the 1980s. Since then he has pared down his aesthetic even further, making risible low-budget films that, unfortunately gain little from being freed of the obligations of the studios. Kusturica alienated many in his native Bosnia by siding with the Serbs during the war (at the height of which he won his second Palme for Underground in 1995). There was still a bit of verve in Black Cat, White Cat, made in 1998 but since then his sporadic output has been leaden and regurgitated, as he has busied himself with numerous extra-curricular activities.
Billie August is the strangest case of all — twice a winner for the well-crafted dramas Pelle the Conqueror and the Ingmar Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions, since his 1991 win for the latter, he has produced one turkey after another. In the 1990s it was a series of bloated Euro-pudding literary adaptations — The House of the Spirits, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Les Misérables — none of which were too inspiring but managed to make money regardless. August’s globalised aesthetic has since become increasingly marginalised with even his 2007 Nelson Mandela drama Goodbye Bafana barely registering with cinema-goers. For a long time it was hard to believe that a two-time Palme d’Or winner could descend so far into such blandness; now the process is so deeply entrenched it’s hard to believe he ever won a Palme d’Or in the first place.
Only the Dardenne brothers have continued strong, with two excellent films since their 2005 win for L’Enfant. They have been spared the curse of the second Palme d’Or and it’s likely Haneke will be too. He’s hit such a rich vein of form that it’s hard to see where he will falter. Even his less satisfying films, The Piano Teacher and Hour of the Wolf, are still head and shoulders above the efforts of many others in Europe. He is also somebody who has no concern whatsoever for commercial niceties and has an audience that doesn’t look like it will desert him any time soon. If anything, Haneke will probably soon become the first director in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to win a hat-trick of Palmes d’Ors. Unless, of course, the Dardennes beat him to it…