CANNES, France — Watching a film get an award is rarely as moving and emotional as watching the film itself, but that was the experience Sunday night at the Cannes Film Festival when Michael Haneke's "Amour" won the Palme d'Or.
The applause for the Austrian Haneke, who also won the Palme in 2009 for "The White Ribbon," increased as he called onto the stage his film's pair of veteran French stars, 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva.
"It is their film," the director said. "They are the essence of the film."
"Amour" is a devastating experience, the heartbreaking result of joining Haneke's severe, immaculate style (think "The Piano Teacher" and "Cache") to an intrinsically emotional subject: What happens to the close, harmonious marriage of a couple in their 80s when the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes.
Though none of the half-dozen American films in competition — including "On the Road," "Killing Me Softly," "The Paperboy" and "Mud" — won anything, Benh Zeitlin's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild" walked off with the coveted Camera d'Or for best first film across all of Cannes' sections. The film also took the FIPRESCI or international critics' prize for the Un Certain Regard section.
The sweetly flabbergasted director told the audience, "You grow up as a kid and Cannes is the temple. This is a wild film, and you never know if you can dance in the temple. It turns out you can."
Aside from "Amour," the film that did best in the competition was "Beyond the Hills," a compelling psychological drama by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme in 2007 for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
"Beyond the Hills" took the best screenplay prize for Mungiu, and the best actress prize was split between stars Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.
"Beyond the Hills" is the story of a lonely young woman (Flutur) who returns to Romania from Germany and attempts to extricate her former lover (Stratan) from her happy new life as a nun, with disastrous results.
Mungiu's gift for acute observation remains undiminished, as does his willingness to confront failure at all levels of Romanian society. He reminded the Cannes audience that this film is based on a true story "of people who really suffered. We can't fix the past with our films, but hopefully we can make the future a little bit better."
Best actor went to Mads Mikkelsen, starring in Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" as a Danish kindergarten teacher's assistant whose life disintegrates after he is unjustly accused of child molestation.
"More than 80 percent of this award, actually 82 percent, belongs to Thomas Vinterberg," the actor said.
The most controversial award, greeted with some boos at the live broadcast of the event, was the director prize to Carlos Reygadas for his surreal "Post Tenebras Lux."
Undaunted, the Mexican director said he wanted to "thank the press that never stopped flattering me for the last few days."
Almost as inexplicable, although fellow Italian Nanni Moretti was the president of the jury, was the awarding of the runner-up Grand Jury Prize to "Reality," Matteo Garrone's dramatic examination of the reality-TV phenomenon.
Much more of a crowd-pleaser was Ken Loach's "The Angels' Share," winner of the Jury Prize for its story of a hot-tempered and violent young man who attempts to turn his life around after becoming a father and discovering an unexpected interest in the intricacies of Scotch whiskey.
Though they're obviously not up for awards, the memorable films of bygone years always draw an enthusiastic audience in the festival's Cannes Classics section: The crowd for a beautifully restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 silent "The Ring" was noticeably larger than many of the newer films that played the same theater.
The wildest, most unexpected item in Classics was 1948's delirious "Kalpana," an Indian film directed by and starring Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar's brother and a great figure in Indian dance. The autobiographical story of a dancer with big dreams, "Kalpana" is described by the World Cinema Foundation, which did the restoration, as "a great work of hallucinatory, homegrown expressionism and ecstatic beauty." And that's not the half of it.
Over in the official festival's crosstown rival, the Directors' Fortnight, the simply named "No," directed by Chile's Pablo Larrain, deservedly took the section's top prize, the Art Cinema Award, in recognition of smart, involving, tangy filming that mixes reality and drama to provocative effect.
Set in 1988, when a plebiscite on Chilean leader Gen. Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian rule is about to take place, "No" stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the based-on-real-life advertising executive who gets the counterintuitive idea of selling the "No" vote the same frothy way he would have sold a soft drink.
Directed by Larrain in a confident, assured style, "No" is a most unusual underdog story, the kind of heady, relevant filmmaking we don't see often enough, at Cannes or anywhere else.