Just when apocalyptic whisperings about a lousy competition lineup started getting louder on the Croisette, along came Mike Leigh's Another Year - easily the high point four days into the festival. The director's fourth film in competition (Leigh took home the Palme d'Or in 1996 for Secrets and Lies), Another Year is a rich, compassionate, unflinchingly perceptive comedic drama that follows an English family and a few of their friends and relatives over the course of one year.
At the centre of the film are Tom and Gerri, a middle-aged husband and wife (played by Leigh veterans Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) who live the kind of life domestic dreams are made of: solid careers, a comfortable house, a loving marriage. But orbiting around them is a gallery of less functional and fulfilled people: a grown son who can't seem to meet the right girl; an overweight friend; a depressive brother; and a hard-drinking, divorced coworker whose self-deprecating giggliness masks her desperate loneliness.
Driven more by character than plot, the film is divided into four chapters, one for each season of the year. Leigh observes how the most mundane occurrences - a new girlfriend brought home for dinner, the death of an aging family member, an unannounced visit from a friend - can provoke seismic shifts in even the most intimate and longstanding relationships.
Leigh's famously improvisational method results in a few lulls during the first half of the film, as some of the conversations go on a few beats too long. But what starts as a loose series of heart-to-hearts, awkward social encounters, and confrontations gradually takes the shape of something deeper and more unusual: an examination of how happy people deal with the unhappy people in their lives - and vice versa. Leigh and his actors understand these characters so thoroughly that each instant of joy and disappointment, as well as every shifting alliance, is registered with almost painful precision.
Another Year features moments of great humour and affection, and some outrageous (mainly drunken) behaviour, but it's also imbued with a bittersweet recognition of the limits of human connection. Needless to say there was enthusiastic and sustained applause at the film's press screening on Saturday. And while it's too early to prognosticate about Palme d'Or winners, Lesley Manville, who plays the needy alcoholic friend, is an early contender for the Best Actress prize.