CANNES, France – Tales of true love, mobsters, and an exorcism gone wrong lead the pack of 22 world cinema contenders racing for the Cannes festival’s Palme d’Or top prize to be awarded on Sunday.
Jury head Nanni Moretti of Italy will crown this year’s laureates at a star-studded gala Sunday night, wrapping up a 12-day movie marathon that drew A-listers from Nicole Kidman to “Twilight” heart-throb Robert Pattinson.
Screened on the final day of the competition, Jeff Nichols’ Mississippi-set coming-of-age drama “Mud”, about two young boys and a fugitive searching for true love, made a last-minute splash in the race for Cannes gold.
But Michael Haneke of Austria, who took Cannes gold in 2009 for “The White Ribbon”, remained the name most cited as the potential prize-winner for “Love”, a wrenching tale of devotion at the bitter end of life.
And Romanian Cristian Mungiu, who won in 2007 for the Communist-era abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, made a powerful new bid for the Palme with “Beyond the Hills”, the true story of a deadly “exorcism”.
The two pictures jointly headed the pack in Screen International’s daily compilation of ratings by critics.
But the race was still wide open, with films by Australian Andrew Dominik, Britain’s Ken Loach, and Frenchman Jacques Audiard snapping at the heels of the front-runners – and the jury free to spring surprises of its own.
Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” stars Marion Cotillard as a killer-whale trainer who loses both legs but finds her way back to life with help from the drifter Ali, played by Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a breakout performance.
In competition for a record 11th time, Loach brought a bittersweet comedy “The Angel’s Share,” featuring whisky, kilts and the scourge of joblessness.
Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” tells of a mob syndicate up against economic hard times, with a humane hitman played by Brad Pitt, star of last year’s Palme winner “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick.
A French jury grid compiled by Le Film Francais gave high marks to the veteran Alain Resnais, back in Cannes two weeks before his 90th birthday with “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, a theatrical film about love, death and acting.
The paper also tipped comeback French director Leos Carax for the top prize for the wackily experimental “Holy Motors” about a man who slips actor-like from one identity to another.
The film’s shape-shifter star Denis Lavant plays no fewer than 11 roles, making him a natural contender for best actor.
In that category, Mads Mikkelsen was searing as a man falsely accused of molesting a child in “The Hunt”, a taut thriller by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg.
Matthew McConaughey wowed Cannes as the outlaw hero of “Mud”, and Tom Hardy set tongues wagging for another tale of the American south, John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era gangster movie “Lawless”.
But the octogenarian French screen icon Jean-Louis Trintignant was staunch favourite for the actor prize, for his role as a devoted husband caring for his dying wife – played by Emmanuelle Riva – in Haneke’s “Love”.
Riva was also tipped as best actress, up against Austria’s Margarethe Tiesel as a 50-year-old sex tourist in Ulrich Seidl’s unflinching “Paradise: Love”.
Cotillard packed a punch too as the amputee star of “Rust and Bone”, while Cosmina Stratan brought a whispered intensity to her role as a young nun in Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.”
And Nicole Kidman was sizzling as a trashy blonde in US director Lee Daniels’ Florida-set film noir “The Paperboy”, though film reviews were mixed.
The Cannes race opened with the whimsical teen elopement story “Moonrise Kingdom” by Wes Andersen, which while not seen as Palme d’Or fodder drew upbeat reviews for its all-star cast.
At the other extreme, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa won praise for “In the Fog”, a bleak wartime tale of treason, revenge and dignity.
But several Cannes regulars failed to convince this time round, among them Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Mexican Carlos Reygadas and Italian Matteo Garrone.
David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis”, starring Pattinson as a billionaire financier stalked by a killer, divided critics, as did an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s cult novel “On the Road” by Brazilian
Asia’s two entries – Im Sang-Soo with the “The Taste of Money” and fellow South Korean Hong Sang-soo’s “In Another Country” – met with downbeat reviews as did the only geopolitical film in the race, “After The Battle”, an Arab Spring drama by Egypt’s Yousry Nasrallah.