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Haneke, Loach among Cannes highlights thus far

The first half of the 65th annual Cannes Film Festival has completed a life cycle in films that range from the motivating spark of child birth to the despair of slow death in old age.

The latter came by way of Michael Haneke's "Amour," which is by wide consensus the favorite thus far for the festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or. Such an outcome would make the Austrian filmmaker, who won three years ago for his previous film, "The White Ribbon," only the seventh director to win two Palmes.

Cannes audiences sit down for a movie with expectations of nothing less than a masterpiece, and "Amour" has been the only film generally considered worthy of that label. Masterly austere, it's a simple and direct story of a French couple in their 80s, played by Emmanuelle Riva as Anne, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges — both French acting greats in thrillingly good late performances.

Early in the film, they return home from a concert to find signs of an attempted break in. No one has entered the apartment, but something worse, something more destructive seems to have been let in. The next morning during breakfast, Anne freezes, staring vacantly. It's the first sign of an irrevocable decline, to be followed by doctor visits, a dementia-inducing stroke, and the mounting indignities of dying while Georges cares for her.

For Haneke, a provocateur of mysterious terrors, it's a film of exceptional intimacy, where death slowly disassembles love.

Though "Amour" — solemn and deadly — is the kind of serious stuff Cannes most celebrates, the festival also loves a crowd-pleaser, even if it doesn't confer quite the same respect on them. (Descriptions of "slight" are a death knell on the Croisette.) "The Artist" premiered at Cannes last year, when Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" took the Palme.

In the first six days of the festival, nothing was as purely pleasurable as Ken Loach's whiskey-heist comedy "The Angel's Share." It played for critics Monday night ahead of its Tuesday premiere, and was warmly welcomed as a genial reprieve after two days of dismal rain along the French Riviera.

It's a rare comedy from Loach, whose social realism has made him a staple in Cannes (a record 11 times in competition) and a Palme d'Or winner for 2006's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley." ''The Angel's Share" stars first-time actor Paul Brannigan as Robbie, a young troublemaker in Glasgow, Scotland, who narrowly escapes a jail sentence. A father to be, he's trying to make something of himself while old rivalries continue to tempt him to violence.

A community service sponsor (John Henshaw) leads Robbie to an interest in whiskey, which figures into an unlikely liquor heist. It's a snappy blue-collar comedy (the Scottish dialogue was judged so thick that English subtitles were played with the film) with a wry commentary on the narrow opportunities for young people trying to start a family in a bleak economy.

There have, of course, been many other festival highlights, including Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone," a tale of love and animal instinct that has drawn raves for Marion Cotillard. Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," opened the festival with a meticulous and melancholy ode to young love. The Danish drama "The Hunt" by Thomas Vinterberg ("Festen") impressed many in its story of runaway gossip.

Cannes finishes Sunday with the Palme d'Or selection from the jury headed by Nanni Moretti. Still to come: David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," Walter Salles' "On the Road," Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux." On Tuesday, Andrew Dominick's thriller "Killing Them Softly," starring Brad Pitt, was to premiere.

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Online:

http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en.html

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Contact Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle