Cannes 2012: Do We Have a New Leader in the Palme d’Or Race?

Michael Haneke's old-age drama 'Amour' draws rapturous reviews, jumps to the top of bookmakers' lists

Approaching the halfway point in Cannes' Palme d'Or race, we appear to have a new leader in the clubhouse: Michael Haneke's "Amour."

The Austrian director's meditation on aging and death, an upcoming Sony Pictures Classics release, was roundly acclaimed by most critics after a Sunday morning screening. Words like "masterpiece" were thrown around in the aftermath of the packed Lumiere showing, which necessitated a second theater to accommodate the overflow.

AmourAnd soon after the screening, the odds posted on the British bookmaking site Paddy Power found "Amour" leaping over Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" to become the favorite, with by far the best odds in the field.

"Amour" is now listed as a 6/5 bet, with "Rust and Bone" second at 4/1.

The critics, bloggers and tweeters for the most part seemed to agree with the bookies. Haneke, a past Palme d'Or winner for his masterfully chilly Oscar-nominated drama "The White Ribbon," won high marks for what is by most accounts a gentle, emotional and understated look at an elderly man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) shepherding his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) through her gradual and inexorable deterioration.

At TheWrap, Sasha Stone called the film "absolutely brilliant," and predicted that it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

"As a man cares for his wife who is slowly dying, every tiny moment between them feels precious, essential, like it can't be skipped over," she wrote.

Also read: Cannes Review: In 'Amour,' the Agony and Beauty of Enduring Love

Some of the other reactions:

Geoff Andrew, Sight & Sound/Time Out London: "Fest's first masterpiece … Rich, honest, deeply moving study of coping with intimacy, illness, death. Perfection!"

Drew McWeeney, HitFix: "Sad and beautiful, 'Love' may be Haneke at his most human."

Total Film: "a study of aging typically austere/harrowing, but compassionate, moving and bravely, brilliantly acted."

Justin Chang, Variety: "as tender, beautiful and uncompromising as you’ve heard."

Peter Debruge, Variety: "this poignantly acted, uncommonly tender two-hander makes a doubly powerful;l statement about man's capacity for dignity and sensitivity when confronted with the inevitable cruelty of nature."

David Poland, Movie City News: "the purest, cleanest, most truthful experience of aging to death you'll ever see."

Eric Kohn, indieWIRE: "incredibly focused and emotionally charged … It's his most conventional movie about death, and the most poignant."   

The closest thing to a naysayer to surface initially, Jeff Wells called the film "a very finely made, corrosively honest but delicately realized Chinese water-torture movie about slowly dying," and later said that he'd prefer ANY kind of death to the one depicted in the film.

He also called it "commendable cinematic Castor Oil" and suggested that older viewers (and voters) could resist it.

For his part, Haneke didn't want any part of interpretation or analysis at the post-screening press conference – but according to Eugene Hernandez from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he did suggest that the filming was difficult.

"If you make a sad and tragic film, the shooting is also sad and tragic," said the director. Co-star Isabelle Huppert, though, clarified that the actors weren't hurting during the shoot.

"It's the spectators who suffer, not the actors," she said.

With a full week left of the festival, and 12 of the 22 films in the main competition yet to screen, the Palme d'Or race is clearly far from over. And Haneke's isn't the only film to have been well-received: In the Screen International critics' poll of the competition movies, Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" and Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" were in the lead as of Sunday morning, with "Amour" not yet part of the poll.

Still to come are a number of potential challengers, including Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux," Alain Resnais' "You Haven't Seen Anything Yet," Sergei Loznitsa's "In the Fog" and David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis."

And it's good to keep in mind that what critics think isn't what counts here. Instead, a nine-person jury makes the decisions – and until the awards have all been handed out, we're not going to hear Nanni Moretti, Alexander Payne, Ewan McGregor, Diane Kruger, Jean-Paul Gaultier or any of the other jurors tipping their hands.

(Photo by Films du Losange / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)