Cannes Lessons: Sideshows Are Fun, but ‘Love’ Is All You Need

The 2012 Cannes Film Festival honored Europeans and went for the emotion, but a crazy American film snuck in there too

The Cannes Film Festival was wet and soggy this year. It didn't have anything as galvanic as last year's winner, "The Tree of Life," or as Oscar-friendly as another 2011 entry, "The Artist," and it didn't prompt any notable bidding wars or buying frenzies.

But it was a solid 11 days of movie-going and deal-making, with an unassailably popular winner and enough controversies thrown in to keep Cannes aficionados happy.

Getty ImagesIt began with complaints over the complete absence of female directors in the main competition, but neither that nor any other fuss rose to the level of Lars von Trier's shenanigans last year.

(Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

It didn't spur any frenzied bargaining, but most of the competition films sold, and companies like The Weinstein Company and Sundance Selects/IFC were major players.

It has almost no chance of producing three Best Picture Oscar nominees the way last year's Cannes did, but the film that won is so universally acclaimed that it has to be considered one of the leaders in the always unpredictable Oscar foreign-language race.

Here are a few of the lessons we learned on the Croisette this year.

AmourAll You Need Is Love.

Michael Haneke does not make heart-tugging, tear-jerking movies.  His previous Cannes winner, "The White Ribbon," was cold, creepy and gripping; previous films like "Cache" and "Funny Games" were even colder and creepier. 

But "Amour" ("Love"), which landed a U.S. deal with Sony Pictures Classics before the festival, is by all reports another matter entirely. The simple, moving and profoundly sad story of an aging man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) taking care of his longtime wife (Emmanuelle Riva) as she slips away in the aftermath of a stroke, it profoundly affected the audience when it premiered midway through the festival.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the Lumiere for Michael Haneke's absolutely brilliant 'Amour,'" wrote Sasha Stone at TheWrap.

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

"Amour" was instantly acclaimed the best film of the festival, but longtime Cannes-watchers also resisted the idea of immediately declaring it the likely Palme d'or winner. Was it too subtle? Did jury president Nanni Moretti have a grudge against Haneke? Would the jury want something more daring?

When Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" came along a couple of days later to galvanize adventurous viewers, the consensus was that Cannes had found a weird, brazen challenger to the Haneke, and maybe even a new frontrunner.

"Rejoice!" tweeted Guy Lodge. "Holy Motors is beautiful, inscrutable, frightening, idiotic, ecstatic… Best in Comp? Oui."

But when the awards were handed out on Sunday, "Holy Motors" was completely shut out as the top prize went to the quiet, understated, emotional film.  Afterwards, juror Jean Paul Gaultier said that the Carax film had come within one vote of winning something (he didn't say what), while Moretti dismissed some of the competition by saying, "I noticed on the part of several directors that they seemed more in love with their style than their characters."

Cannes is a European club.

American films have won the Palme d'Or more often than any other country, but they didn't fare well this year. Of the remarkable eight English-language films in competition (a number which includes films from Australian Andrew Dominik, Canadian David Cronenberg and Brit Ken Loach), only Loach's "The Angels' Share" won anything – and that film's characters speak in such thick Scottish accents that it screened with English subtitles as well.

Post Tenebras LuxInstead, European films won: Austria, Romania, Italy, Denmark and the UK. Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux" (left), the strangest and most unexpected winner, is from Mexico, the only competition film not from the continent to win.

And more crucially, the wins all went to directors who’ve won at Cannes before. Haneke won the Palme d'Or three years ago for his last film, "The White Ribbon," and previously he'd won other awards for "Cache" and "The Piano Teacher"; Grand Prize winner Matteo Garrone won that same prize for "Gomorrah" in 2008. Cristian Mungiu ("Beyond the Hills") is a past Palme winner for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," while Thomas Vinterberg ("The Hunt") and Reygadas won in 1998 and 2007, respectively.

In other words, once you’re in the club, you're in. But don't expect them to speak English at the door.

Beasts of the Southern WildBut "Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't just a Sundance sensation.

On the other hand, one American film proved to be undeniable – and it's the same one that proved to be undeniable in Park City four months ago. Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a bracing, energetic and exhilarating tale of environmental apocalypse set in a mythical community in deepest Louisiana, took Sundance by storm and did the same at Cannes, where it won the Camera d'Or as the best first feature.

Also read: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Rips Through Sundance

Since first-time directors don't get into the main competition, that prize is open to debut features from across the festival, including the independent Directors Fortnight and Critics Week sections.

When "Beasts" premiered at Sundance, it seemed fresh and vital, but also a real challenge to market. But the reception at Cannes might mean that it's simply so fresh and so vital that it'll roll right over qualms about fitting into the marketplace. Fox Searchlight will release it this summer

Getty ImagesCannes loves sideshows

Nothing dominated the festival the way Lars von Trier's comments about being a Nazi did last year, which was a relief. But with the worldwide media descending on Cannes en masse, any kind of fuss is devoured and disseminated furiously.

So after the women-at-Cannes controversy died down (which was always a serious issue, not a sideshow), Cannes-watchers turned to Sacha Baron Cohen riding his camel down the Croisette … and whether Brad Pitt would be bringing Angelina Jolie with him … and the feud between Alec Baldwin and Harvey Weinstein  … and the screech-inducing appearances of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart … and the nudity in "On the Road."

And then Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" came along and trumped all that with a scene in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron.

The movie was never much of a major player at the festival, but the scene became the talk of the town for a day or two.

Moonrise Kingdom… but really, it's the art.

In the end, though, Cannes is about "Amour," not urine; about cinema, not sideshow; about Kiarostami and Carax, not Rob and Kristen.

That much was made clear at a press conference for the final day's film "Mud," in which Dana Kennedy reported that the assembled media yelled for director Jeff Nichols and largely ignored his two stars, Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey.

In Hollywood, it's easy to focus on money, marketing, target audiences and Oscar voters. And while Cannes-goers can't forget about those things, they can at least spend a week or two pretending that what really matters is good moviemaking.

In Cannes, sometimes the currency of the realm really is cinema, not celebrity.  (Or currency.)

Then again, the same weekend that the Palme d'Or was handed out, the film that opened Cannes, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," debuted in four U.S. theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

No doubt buoyed by the attention it gained kicking off Cannes, the film earned a remarkable $167,371 per screen, which Focus Features says is the best average ever for a live-action feature in a theatrical run.

In other words, sometimes the currency of Cannes and the currency of Hollywood intersect.