And so to some odds and ends, rounding off coverage of the strongest Cannes since the 60th, surpassing even the festival of two years ago, which featured Inglorious Basterds, The White Ribbon, Enter The Void and Antichrist. This year felt more driven by the movies themselves than the artists behind them, which is perhaps why two of the critics' choices felt overshadowed by arguably more populist entries such as Drive and The Skin I Live In. The first was the Dardennebrothers' The Kid With A Bike (pictured), their bid to make it a triple in the Palme D'Or-win stakes. Personally, it's my favourite of their films so far, largely due to the performance of 12-year-old Thomas Doret as Cyril, a little boy who has been parcelled off to a children's home by his deadbeat dad (Dardennes regular Jeremie Reiner). Looking for his father, Cyril meets a local hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile De France), who offers to take him in (her motivations are never explained), but even in her care Cyril can't stay out of trouble and gravitates towards a local hoodlum.
Aside from the convenience of Samantha's unexplained kindness to a complete stranger, The Kid With A Bike, though slight, totally confirms the Dardennes' strength as precise and capable filmmakers. The story definitely owes a debt to The 400 Blows but their style does not; after the TV-movie trimmings of their last film, Lorna's Silence, their latest is much more cinematic, with wonderful, sweeping tracking shots that follow Cyril as he peddles furiously across town. This film deservedly shared the Grand Prix with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia but I would have liked to have seen a special mention for Doret, who gives the role a real grounding.
The other critics' choice was Le Havre by Aki Kaurismaki – another reminder that, when it comes to predicting the Palme D'Or, good press is not a good barometer. Le Havre was a slight disappointment to me after all the raves, but then I'm not much of a fan of Kaurismaki's deadpan stylings. André Wilms stars as Marcel Marx, a shoeshiner in a small port town, and in a twist reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's The Visitor he becomes embroiled in the plight of a young illegal immigrant whose journey to London in a shipping container has been interrupted by the police. Wilms is wonderful, in a baggy-eyed Jean Rochefort kind of way, and there are some lovely details (a bar called La Moderne is populated by drunks who are anything but). The story is a little thin, however, bordering on twee when it ought to be emotional, and a little self-indulgent when it comes to a subplot featuring ageing silver-fox rocker Little Bob, better known as Little Bob Story.
My favourite unsung competition film was the Austrian entry Michael, by first-timer Markus Schleinzer, who previously worked as Michael Haneke's casting director. I must say upfront that this is a tough sell, being the story of a 35-year-old man – Michael, played with restraint by Michael Fuith – who keeps a ten-year-old boy prisoner in his basement. Schleinzer's film is not coy about what Michael needs the boy for, but this isn't simply a grim catalogue of abuse. For one thing, the boy hates him and frequently stands up to him, which offers some release from the intensity of the subject. But also Michael has an outside life: his family seems quite normal, he holds down a job, goes skiing with friends and even manages to get a promotion. The film was attacked from many quarters, mostly by sniffy American critics who complained that it didn't explain much, but I found it to be a fascinating character study about a man who compartmentalises his life. Schleinzer's masterstroke comes at the end, when Michael's family, previously seen in snatches, become much more vivid to us. In an instant, the film becomes about them and not him, about the time bomb that's ticking away in his soundproofed cellar and the devastating impact it will have on yet more innocent people.
I only saw one film in Critics Weeks – Walk Away Renee by Jonathan Caouette, director of Tarnation, the iMac-edited 2004 confessional in which he recounted his turbulent life with his bipolar mother Renee. I loved Tarnation but, although Caouette protested otherwise, this was more of the same, right down to the title cards spelling out the story. In this update, Caouette chronicles the road trip he took with Renee from her home in Texas to an assisted-living facility in New York. Along the way Renee loses her meds, Caouette tries to get a replacement scrip and we basically get whole chunks of Tarnation all over again, in a much less original and charming fashion. The screening I was at was attended by Spike Jonze, who was there with a cute fuzzy-felt short animation he'd co-directed with Simon Cahn called Mourir Auprès De Toi, in which two book jackets – a skeleton from a cover of Macbeth and a woman from a cover of Dracula – find their late-night tryst scuppered. It was short but sweet, and it would be great to see this technique expanded.
Over in Un Certain Regard, The Murderer (aka The Yellow Sea) by Hong-jin Na was also something of a letdown. Although it contains some brilliant set-pieces, mostly involving carving knives and axes, the latest offering from the director of The Chaser is too long, narratively garbled (nobody I spoke to understood the ending) and somewhat predicated on a knowledge of Oriental geography. The premise involves a gambler named Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-woo) from the Chinese side of the China-Russia-North Korea border who is sent to carry out a hit in South Korea. He is beaten to the punch, however, and finds himself equally pursued by the police and the South Korean mafia. The chase scenes were exciting but often over-edited, and the picture quality really dipped at times into a kind of sub-VHS blur. My favourite thing about it was Kim Yun-Seok's performance as pugnacious gangster Myung-Ga; he almost makes Choi Min-Sik look pussy. Well, almost.
Also in this section was Joachim Trier's rather excellent Oslo, 31 August, which, coincidentally, played out as a more effective version of the other Trier's Melancholia. Born in Denmark but raised in Norway, this Trier is so far known for his low-key drama Reprise, which I have yet to see but have heard very good things about. This one stars Anders Danielsen Lie as Anders, a depressive guy in his early 30s who is nearing the end of a stint in rehab. Anders is a past master of hedonism; his achievements thus far amount to little more than DJ-ing and drug-dealing, so when he returns to his native Oslo the city is cold and grey, not the luminous playground of his youth. Anders visits a friend, tries to get a job, tirelessly calls his clearly very ex and, in one beautiful scene of calm reflection, eavesdrops on the mundane conversations going on around him during a daytime stop-off in a coffee bar. The crunch is clearly coming, and when Anders decides to go to a party we wonder if he'll cross the line from sobriety – and, if he does, how far he will go.
It would be spoiling things to say more, but this is not simply a film about addiction, it's about life and the people it leaves behind. It starts somewhat morosely, and certainly never breaks out the party poppers, but in its second leg Trier really shows what a masterful, careful and promising director he really is. I shall leave my Cannes coverage right here, on a festival high, with Joachim Trier being one of a number of discoveries in a rich and varied festival that I barely scratched the surface of. Soda Pictures have Oslo, 31 August (release date TBC), and for lovers of serious slow-burn art movies in the style of Ratcatcher-era Lynne Ramsay, I can't recommend it highly enough.