Stepping off the TGV at Cannes-Ville railway station, and onto the Rue Jean-Jaurès early on a Wednesday afternoon, the sentiment becomes palpable. The heaving throng of people being disgorged from the station exits, unceremoniously battling each other to get through to the street, the signs held up for arriving minor celebrities, with limos in abeyance waiting to take them to their luxury hotels, the coruscant sun beating down on us as we surveyed our Mediterranean surrounds. Oui, I say as I turn to Mirabelle, on est à Cannes. But even this unruly scene is only a faint portent of the latest occurrence of the annual pandemonium concentrated on the Croisette over twelve days in mid-May.

What, then, is the meaning of Cannes? Nothing less than the absolute best and the absolute worst of everything that has to do with the cinema. The best is, in short, the films themselves. A high degree of selectivity – only about 80 feature-length films in the four different sections, compared to the several hundred works that can populate other festivals – combined with the clout that comes from its unrivalled reputation results in the festival attaining a rare degree of consistency in the quality of its films. Not all will rise to the status of enduring masterpiece, but the vast majority will be assured works made by either prominent auteurs or promising talents. With the exception of commercial vehicles screened only for the purposes of adding extra celebrity-lustre to the unremitting procession of red carpet galas (this year, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Jodie Foster’s The Beaver), few of the films selected in any of the programs will be devoid of artistic merit. And the great advantage of such a restrained program is that, in contrast to the 300-film behemoths of Rotterdam, Berlin et al., a common frame of reference as to the films watched builds up among festival-goers. Over the course of Cannes’ week-and-a-half duration, an attendee with the requisite determination, forethought, tolerance for interminable queues and, occasionally, blind luck, can see a high proportion of the festival’s offerings, and thus attain a global impression – impossible in many of its rivals’ programs – of what Cannes in 2011 represents.

The worst of Cannes, on the other hand, is everything surrounding the films: the pugnacious haggling over market deals, the hysterical fawning over tawdry celebrities, the snobbish obsession with high-profile parties invariably taking place on one of the yachts dotting the harbour, the several-times-a-day chaotic adventure involved in trying to traverse the Croisette for a Quinzaine screening upon exiting the Palais, the frequent and invasive security checks, the endless lines subject to Byzantine hierarchies based on colour-coded ID-badges, the journalists willing to kill their own grandmother to get into an in-demand screening, only to either fall asleep or walk out halfway through the film (ah!, here, at least, I am as guilty as anyone else).

So, wishing to avoid the spectre of grumbling negativity towards the festival’s accoutrements in this piece, it is on the films themselves that I will concentrate my thoughts – to the great relief, I am sure, of my tyrannical ogress of a festival reports editor, intolerant of my inclination towards meandering digressions or allusion-laden ruminations in previous dispatches.

And it is perhaps fitting that the festival opened with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a film which can be seen, in many ways, as an allegory for Cannes itself, as the grande dame of the festival circuit embarked on its 64th edition. A veteran director, largely set in his ways, offers us a piece which will be familiar territory for those of us who know his work – which is to say, all of us. No great surprises are in store, and on occasion, it will often stoop to an aseptic, postcardesque re-hash of former glories (in the case of this film, the opening sequence, attempting to do for the ville lumière what Manhattan did for Allen’s hometown, only without any of the visual bravura) or the cheap attention-seeking of celebrity cameos (here, Mrs Sarkozy’s 37-second on-screen appearance). But at its best, Midnight in Paris, in following an implausible premise to its absurd logical conclusions, can stand proudly with Allen’s 1970s short stories, and provides us with enough agreeable moments – Owen Wilson’s contretemps with his Tea Party-sympathising father-in-law, the little-known Corey Stoll’s incarnation of a deliriously serious Ernest Hemingway, Dali obsessing over the word “rhinoceros”, Buñuel flummoxed when the premise of El Angel Exterminador is proposed to him – that we can not avoid leaving the theatre in a mirthful mood. And so we, the fortnight-long denizens of Cannes, should ourselves take on-board the lesson digested by Wilson’s Gil Pender upon seeing even Toulouse-Lautrec and Dégas regret the lost glorious past of the Renaissance. We might yearn for the Cannes of decades gone by, when Les 400 coups swept all before it, when L’Avventura was booed, when Godard swung from a curtain rod to shut down a screening in the wake of the événements of ’68, a time when – how else to put it? – cinema seemed simply to matter more, when Hernani-esque scenes seemed par for the course, when the dust on this aesthetic edifice had been stirred up, and not yet settled back into place. But we should recognise the value of our own times, and the continued capacity of filmmakers to agitate, to unnerve, to intervene, which has by no means diminished as much as the doomsayers sometimes fear. And, indeed, Cannes ’11 gave us ample proof of this.

For it is not for Midnight in Paris that the festival will be remembered. Rather, two film-monoliths will, for wildly contrasting reasons, leave their imprint on the collective memory of this year’s Cannes. These monumental works, these twin towers of cinema, these colossal, rugged boulders of scope and ambition standing among the (albeit often more smoothly polished) pebbles sprinkled around them – I’m speaking of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which, despite screening within two days of each other towards the middle of the program, offered a thematic symmetry which seemed monstrously to book-end the festival. Whereas Malick’s work propelled the spectator back to the origins of the universe, von Trier’s hurtled him towards the cataclysmic end of the world. But whereas the former, crowned with the film world’s prize of prizes, could triumphantly stride out of the Palais with accolades raining down on him, the latter had to precipitously flee Cannes in ignominy, amidst a hail of abuse, which – as many of my readers will no doubt already know – had nothing to do with the relative merits of the film itself.

This contrast aside, there was much that brought the two works together: both clocked in close to the 2½-hour mark, without coming across as bloated or dissipated (indeed, Malick’s was reportedly edited down from a 3½-hour version which proved too unwieldy for last year’s Cannes), both were shot on digital video, and contained lengthy, cosmically-inflected CGI sequences, both are stamped by remarkably similar colour-palettes, dominated by ex-urban greens and stratospheric blues, and captured through golden-hued filters, and both works are imbued with deeply musical structures, harking back to Meisterwerke of the Western aesthetic canon.

Even for the most musically illiterate among us, it was hard to avoid reaching for the adjective “symphonic” when reacting to The Tree of Life. Plot is by no means absent from the film – which registers the reverberations between the 1950s suburban Texas childhood of Jack O’Brien, dealing with the family tragedy of a dead sibling and a brutish army-father (Brad Pitt, settling nicely into a middle-aged role) who, after failing as a concert musician, attempts to beat resolve into his offspring, and his present-day, Sean Penn-incarnated, middle-aged malaise – but rather than following a defined narrative arc, the film is structured along four “movements”, which sweep the viewer between emotional, thematic and formal extremities as magnificently as any Schubert piece. I can only applaud, then, Malick’s philosophical and artistic ambition, but the film also contains trenchant deficiencies: the second movement, lengthily proffering an abstracted view of the cosmos, veers between the profound and the maladroit, and its conclusion, with an episode involving digitally-animated dinosaurs, is embarrassing in its crudity. Even the most attentive viewer can not but feel, at times, stranded by the wafting in and out of various plotlines – to the extent that even the trope of Jack’s loss of his older brother is discarded for a long part of the film. And the final scene, depicting heaven as a wintry beach featuring the older Jack embracing everyone he has known throughout his life, is heavy-handed and cloying.

So it was that, in spite of the rumours that Gilles Jacob had intimated to the Competition’s jury, headed this year by Robert de Niro, that “history would judge them” if the Palme d’or were not awarded to Malick, a measure of equivocation in their decision could be detected, as de Niro’s statement that “Few films are 100%, but most of us thought it was great” suggests. Perhaps de Niro would have been more comfortable with Refn’s Drive, in which the Danish director of Bronson and the Pusher trilogy channels Scorsese’s films of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in following a Hollywood stunt-car driver’s inauspicious dealings with the LA mob. And one can not help but feel that the prize was just as much a lifetime achievement award for a director who, with three films in the last 12 years, has entered a relatively prolific period, as it was for The Tree of Life alone. But should we quibble about this? Mieux vaut acclaim for a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless, than a perfectly-made minor work – and if recent US box office takings are anything to go by, this release may cement Malick’s status as the true heir to Kubrick, in being able to reach a mass audience with challenging, idiosyncratic material on an epic scale.

If Malick’s film is suffused with Schubert, then von Trier’s is awash with Wagner. This was avowed with the film’s opening, pushing the use of a filmic overture (already dallied with in Dancer in the Dark) to audacious limits, as an 8-minute CGI sequence shows a celestial dance set to the prologue of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. But the entire film might as well have had Götterdämmerung as an alternative title, rather than Melancholia, the name of the giant planet on a collision course with the Earth – dystopic pendant, perhaps, of James Cameron’s Pandora – and in daring to film the complete annihilation of the world, with the closing moments sealing humanity’s fate in a bombastic inferno with Spielbergian levels of acoustic excess (and not even Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall there to save the day!), von Trier gives himself over to his most untrammelled Wagnerian impulses. As Thomas Vinterberg reportedly said to him: “What do you do after this?” And yet, there is more to the film than apocalypse. Von Trier’s impish sense for montage returns – the overture, having reached a crescendo, is followed immediately by a comically frustrating attempt to negotiate a limo around a tight corner – as does his propensity for visibly discomfitting his actors during scenes.

As with the Malick, the film is not without its flaws; but most of those that critics who bear inveterate animosity towards the Dane took all too much glee in pointing out – the “translated” feel of the dialogue, the unrealistic composition of the family, a potpourri of different accents and ethnic backgrounds, the po-faced nature of many of the performances, the supposed holes and improbabilities in the development of the plot as destruction approaches – were clearly deliberate aesthetic choices for von Trier. And those who found the first half of the film, centring around a family gathering in a large country estate seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, to be derivative of Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) unfathomably overlooked the mordantly surreal quality of the later film, absent in the work of von Trier’s younger confrère.

What perhaps sets Melancholia apart from prior efforts by von Trier is its maturity in handling the subject matter; the director does not allow any overtly offensive or controversial moments to creep into the work, in the manner of The Idiots (1998) or the clitoral mutilation of Anti-Christ (2009). Instead, Justine’s depressive spell and Claire’s onset of paranoia are treated with deft sensitivity. It was perhaps an urge to compensate for this lack of provocation, then, that propelled him to the statements made in the now infamous press conference following the film’s initial screening. To dispel any possible ambiguity about von Trier’s comments, here is a verbatim transcript of his transgression:

I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier and then suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew, and even if I’d been a Jew, I would have been a second-rate Jew, because there’s a kind of hierarchy in the Jewish population. But, anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi. Because my family was German (Hartmann), which also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I’m just saying that I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathise with him a little bit, yes. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War. And I’m not against Jews – Susanne Bier, yes. No, not even Susanne Bier, that was also a joke. I am, of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the arse, but still: how can I get out of this sentence? No I just want to say about the art… I’m very much for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also maybe one of God’s best children but he had some talent that was kind of possible for him to use during – okay, I’m a Nazi.

Let’s be clear: these remarks represent nothing more than von Trier’s characteristically sardonic manner of treating issues such as his complex attitude towards his family background, his conflicted views on fascist art, and perhaps a self-recognition of his own sadistic, authoritarian tendencies, which those who have worked on-set with the director readily attest to. A thoroughly valid opposition to the state of Israel aside, von Trier was clearly not espousing a political viewpoint, nor – even sarcastically – a programmatic adherence to Nazism. Not only did he backtrack from what he already knew would be controversial statements in the press conference itself, he also issued a statement quickly afterwards maintaining: “If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologise. I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.”

This was not the view of Cannes’ festival committee, which convened especially to respond to the remarks, and issued a statement declaring von Trier to be “persona non grata, effective immediately”, banning him from coming within 100 metres of the Palais and cancelling all other engagements to do with the film. Using the sort of twisted logic favoured by totalitarians to justify the unprecedented act of censorship, the board proclaimed that “Cannes provides artists with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. We profoundly regret that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival.” We treasure freedom of speech so much, they effectively said, that we have to ban people who say things we don’t like.

The controversy that erupted as a result of this dwarfed the resonance that, only a few days earlier, the biggest scandal to hit French politics for a generation – likely presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on rape charges – was able to have inside the hermetically sealed bubble that descends over the Croisette for the duration of the festival. The festival organisers’ hypocrisy was all the more galling given that Mel Gibson, whose venting of rabidly antisemitic sentiments was far more authentic than von Trier’s, and whose contrition about them was far more insincere, was welcomed onto the red carpet this year with open arms, thanks to his role in The Beaver, and this was highlighted by the Dane himself, who later stated: “I highly respect the Cannes festival, but I also understand that they are very angry with me right now. I’m no Mel Gibson, but once again I would like to say sorry everybody”. Its cynicism, too, was highlighted by the fact that Melancholia was not withdrawn from competition, and the awarding of the best actress prize to Kirsten Dunst – though not undeserved – smacked of calculated tactics: award the film, but in such a manner that it is not the pesky director who is given approbation. The wonder, perhaps, was that these tactics did not provoke the indignation from the media that they warranted: most observers either reported dispassionately on the furore, or even openly approved of the festival organisers’ measures (such as The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw), some even invoking Gilles Jacob’s personal experience of Nazi occupation as defence.

It is regrettable that I have even had to expend 900 words on this foofaraw, and that attention that should be focused on the film itself, one of the strongest additions to von Trier’s œuvre, has been diverted in this way. Moreover, the competition was not lacking in other powerful films deserving discussion. With Le Havre, for instance, Aki Kaurismäki combines the nostalgic humour for which he has become renowned with a biting political commentary on the brutal contemporary realities of Fortress Europe. Old-time Bohemian Marcel Marx (André Wilms), one of a host of quirky characters living in a version of the eponymous French port city timewarped from the 1950s, harbours an African child having clandestinely fled his homeland in a shipping container, and is pursued by Jean-Pierre Daroussin playing the unflappable Inspecteur Monet. When the entirely black-clad Monet buys a pineapple at the town’s grocery store and takes it with him to a local bar, Kaurismäki reaches a level of comedic sublimity, with the simplest of devices, rarely attained since Buster Keaton.

The official selection’s other unmitigated crowd-pleaser, Michael Hazanivicius’ The Artist, was an unlikely candidate for audience favourite, given the fact that it was shot in black and white and (mostly) silent. Its plot, focusing on silent movie star George Valentin’s inability to adapt to the sound era, and the concomitant rise of aspiring actress Peppy Miller, will have many reaching for comparisons to Singin’ in the Rain, although for me there is a greater debt to Vidor’s 1928 ode to the silent era, Show People. I must admit that Hazanivicius’ background as director of the OSS 117 films and a distinctly unappetising trailer for the film had me lukewarm about watching it, but as the glowing responses rolled in from all quarters I became determined to catch a later market screening of the film. And yes, it is impossible to leave the theatre without a broad grin stretching across one’s face: the energetic humour, the verve of the actors, the playfully Griffithian rescue ending, and, above all, the unabashed return to an innocent, primeval era of cinematic storytelling, before Hollywood swallowed itself up in formulaic convention, knowing cynicism and self-referentiality. In his press kit, Hazanavicius runs through a panoply of reference points for the film’s narrative and visual style – Murnau, Borzage, early Hitchcock – and yet, in spite of the use of black and white, it is the film’s visual look which probably lets it down the most: the milky liquescence of silent era filming has been replaced with the crisp sterility of modern cinematography (the digital projection didn’t help in this regard – but more on this later), and absent are many of the stylistic hallmarks of the period: the high contrast-lighting, the deep shadows splashed across the screen, the spatially-indeterminate close-ups of actors, drowning in photogénie. Similarly, the film’s musical score was excessively directional, as if Hazanavicius were nervously overcompensating for the lack of spoken dialogue. But these do not significantly undermine what will be one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year, and one which, if festival buzz is any measure, will beguile audiences in large numbers.

By contrast, Lynne Ramsay’s belated follow-up to Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is deeply unsettling. Tilda Swinton’s Eva puts her career ambitions aside in order to raise her son, but the lack of love she bears for him, and even resentment at her lost opportunities, is palpable. Unable to stop the infant screaming, for instance, she takes him to a roadwork site to drown out his cries. Predictably, perhaps, Kevin grows up to be violently autistic, his behaviour becomes more disturbing, until a conclusive Colombine-style calamity takes place. With its jerky, fragmentary flitting between different eras, where Ramsay’s film works best is on the level of montage, a rare enough phenomenon in the long-take-dominated contemporary arthouse cinema. But, while it gained some early critical traction, Kevin’s prize-chances suffered from being screened so close to the beginning of the program, as its appreciation was soon engulfed by the festival’s subsequent offerings.

It need hardly be said that the Dardenne brothers’ latest work, Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike), continues their politico-aesthetic project of filming marginalised figures in the Seraing district of post-industrial Wallonia. But in this film, focusing on an 11 year-old child, Cyril, who struggles with abandonment by his father and the temptations of local delinquents, their camerawork is much less claustrophobic, and the film is illuminated by the binary radiance of the summer sun (the Dardennes eschewing, for once, shooting in Seraing’s bleak winter months) and of Cécile de France, playing Samantha, a hairdresser who impulsively decides to adopt the troubled child following a chance encounter with him. Three other competition films from auteurist titans, however, were not as successful. Almodovar’s La Piel que habito (The Skin I Live In), an Antonio Banderas-led retread of Les yeux sans visage, continues his thematic preoccupation with transsexuality, but is ultimately a minor, light-weight work. Critics may deploy the adjective “Hitchcockian” when referring to it, but if a Hitchcockian influence there be in the film, then it is the master of suspense at his most camply tongue-in-cheek (To Catch a Thief, for instance). Similarly, Moretti’s Habemus papam had the potential to be a papal counterpart to his anti-Berlusconian Il Caimano, but those hoping for blasphemy will be let down. Moretti withholds from aiming for the jugular as he did in the earlier film, and the result is a tame and indulgent affair – the filmmaker, one feels, has no qualms about assailing the political establishment, but, ever the Italian, the prospect of pillorying the Holy See is a step too far. Honoré’s Les Bien-Aimés (The Beloved), meanwhile, is a disappointment on almost every level: while the grand sweep of its narrative arc, extending from the 1960s to the present day, and taking in the Prague Spring, the AIDS crisis and September 11, constituted a propitious premise, the delivery is weak. The frequent musical numbers are bland and uninspired, and Honoré tries to make up for it by desperately wringing emotion out of the spectator through a grab-bag of melodramatic devices.

The selection for Un Certain Regard may not have been populated by the auteurist heavyweights of the Competition, but for a diverse slice of world cinema, it has no match at Cannes. Only here can the Korean-Chinese action movie The Murderer happily co-exist with Bruno Dumont’s minimalist, heavily Bernanosian Hors Satan. I must admit, however, that I was initially underwhelmed by his follow-up to Hadewijch, as I was with Bonello’s depiction of a fin-de-siècle whorehouse in the competition film L’Apollonide (The House of Tolerance). But with both works, Mirabelle came out of the cinema with a decidedly more positive response than I did, and indeed, both films stayed with me, haunted me, more than I initially believed they would – what can I say, Mirabelle, but you clearly have a much better snap judgement than me in these cases. Other accomplished entries in the sidebar by more established figures included Hong Sang-soo’s Rohmerian film-balade The Day He Arrives, Zvyagintsev’s taut, Philip Glass-scored thriller Elena and Guédiguian’s Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro (The Snows of Kilimandjaro). This last centred on a vexing moral problematic taking place in Guédiguian’s familiar working-class Marseille milieu: recently unemployed trade union hero Michel and his wife Marie-Claire are robbed at gunpoint in their home by a young man who turns out to be a former co-worker, struggling to take care of two younger brothers. As Michel considers to what extent legal action should be taken against his assailant, his wife begins to secretively attend to the children. The film, however, resolves the seemingly irresolvable conundrum with disappointing neatness – it turns out there was no contradiction after all, and we can all go on merrily living our lives!

Un Certain Regard is just as important, however, for blooding newer talents. While Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene garnered ample critical praise, for me, Joachim Trier’s sophomore effort Oslo, 31 August – which had the potential to be overshadowed by the furore around Trier’s distant relative – was the strongest of the newcomers. In this loose adaptation of Le Feu Follet, we witness the uneasy reinsertion of the 34 year-old Anders into society, after a six-year drug addiction had shattered the prospects of this brilliant spawn of the bourgeoisie. The film is affecting, not least because of the rarity, it seems, that a filmmaker nowadays will make something which cuts so close to home – the wasted potential of those born into privileged backgrounds, and the concomitant emptiness of those who do manage to achieve career success and domestic stability.

Ivan Sen’s Toomelah also cleaves closely to the director’s personal background, but here it is the decidedly more disadvantaged milieu of an aboriginal community in rural Queensland. 10 year-old Daniel, raised by a detached mother and alcoholic father, seeks surrogate parenting from a neighbouring self-styled gangster, Linden. Sen depicts the setting with unrivalled authenticity, and in spite of an uneven use of sound and the limitations of a tiny budget, Toomelah was easily the best of the three Australian entries in Cannes. The other two, Sleeping Beauty and Snowtown, suffered from the typical drawbacks of our film industry’s output. In the wake of Ten Canoes and Samson and Delilah, it seems the only interesting films this country can make are those with a high level of indigenous creative input, which leads me to espouse a theory, controversial as this might be, that this is due to the fact that the film commission bureaucrats, who ordinarily drain projects of any possible vitality by a phagocytic process of endless submissions and revisions, take a distinctly more hands off approach to aboriginal filmmakers – out of a liberalistic tolerance towards their “cultural specificity”, perhaps – and this heightened freedom allows for a flourishing of cinematic expression which is otherwise strangled at birth in Australian filmmaking.

In comparison to the other sections, the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, organisationally autonomous from the Official Selection and with screenings a 10-45 minute walk away from the Palais (depending on the density of the Croisette crowds), offered scarce highlights. Philippe Ramos’ Jeanne captive (The Silence of Joan) was one. As if adapting the story of Captain Ahab in his previous outing was not audacious enough – doesn’t he know that le grand Momo himself declared such a venture to be doomed to failure? – Ramos now takes on France’s formative legend itself, already treated by Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini and Rivette. But Ramos gives an invigorating take on Joan of Arc, incarnated here by Clémence Poésy, proving himself to be one of the most distinctive new figures in French cinema. Fascinating, albeit for completely unintended reasons, was the closing scene: showing Joan’s remains being deposited in a body of water gained strange resonance only a couple of weeks after bin Laden’s body was subject to a similar fate (hot-blooded French patriots will no doubt bridle at this suggestion, but what is bin Laden anyway, other than a modern-day Joan of Arc?). Ruben Östlund’s Play was, for me, one of the major discoveries of the festival. Throughout the film, a group of black kids systematically terrorise a group of white kids, while, as a recurring bout of dry comic relief, bewildered train staff deal with a wooden cradle left behind in a carriage. But we get the sense that there is more keeping the middle-class white children captive to their tormentors than the mere threat of physical violence; a mysterious attraction, perhaps, or a counterintuitive taste for danger. Östlund’s directorial abilities shine through most clearly on the level of mise-en-scène: his use of framing, off-screen space and sound structure, building on his earlier short Incident by a Bank (2009), are all remarkable, and call for deeper analysis than this report can provide. Téchiné’s Impardonnables (Unforgivable), meanwhile, is another assured work by the veteran, slightly out of place in a program dominated by younger filmmakers, in which the escalating jealousy of pulp novelist Francis, having embarked on a spontaneous romance with a younger woman in Venice, is tracked with buoyant verve.

But much of the rest of the Quinzaine failed to impress. Many of the films, when considered in their own right, were by no means deplorable, but their central drawback was being presented in a forum which highlighted the formulaic nature of a large strain of arthouse cinema, preponderating with visually restrained films, dominated by the long-take aesthetic, with minimalist narrative structures, low on action, centring on taciturn, socially marginalised figures and concluding in an abrupt, largely inexplicable shocking scene. The Quinzaine’s director, Frédéric Boyer, has a very specific taste in film, and allows this predilection to dominate the shape of the program to an inordinate degree. When, within the space of a few days, the festival-goer is confronted with a dozen or so of these conventionally unconventional works (it is striking how many of the directors included had backgrounds in a small clutch of European film schools), the effect can only be one of nauseating repetitiveness. Things came to a head, for this writer, with Ursula Antoniak’s Code Blue, a perfect distillation of everything banal about this tendency of filmmaking, by the middle of which I would have gladly sacrificed a limb to be able to watch a gaudy monster movie instead. I was not alone in this reaction, and the fact that signs had been plastered up in the Théâtre de la Croisette that day warning that scenes in the film might “hurt the audience’s feelings” only added to the risible critical response Code Blue incited. It was a relief, then, as the section drew to a close, to watch Sion Sono’s lurid Koi No Tsumi (Guilty of Romance), a delirious reworking of Belle du Jour, driven to extravagantly violent excess, and representing everything the Quinzaine wasn’t. Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle is a constant reference point in Sono’s film, appropriately enough for a work that knew no logical ending, as the constant changes in its stated running time (eventually my screening clocked in at just over 150 minutes, but one had the feeling Sono was still at work on the editing table as the projection began) and the fact that the film overflows even its own end credits indicates. But then, I didn’t want it to end either, as the turning on of the house lights signalled a return to the drab fare of the rest of the Quinzaine.

It seems my dissatisfaction with the Quinzaine – whose remit should be to show a diverse range of global cinema, rather than a singular aesthetic – was shared, and as the festival closed Le Monde’s Jacques Mandelbaum ran a piece expressing similar reservations. For Mandelbaum, the true shock of Cannes was that the Quinzaine was, for perhaps the first time, overshadowed by the Semaine de la Critique, showcasing first- and second-time directors, and quoted the Official Selection’s Thierry Frémaux, obviously taking glee at the fate of his rival, as saying: “You reach certain limits, the Quinzaine was created in 1968, when an ‘alternative cinema’ genuinely existed. This is less so now that, dare I say it, we have a case of ‘to each according to his cinema’.” (1) My views on the Semaine are necessarily piecemeal, as I was only able to take in a smattering of the selection, but its prospects seem bright given the appointment of erstwhile Cahiers critique Charles Tesson to lead the program from next year onwards. Nonetheless, the fawning by French critics over Valérie Donzelli’s La Guerre est déclarée (Declaration of War), which opened the Semaine, seemed exaggerated on the basis of my viewing: the film is certainly a deeply emotional experience, but this is mainly due to the nature of the story (young parents coping with their toddler son’s diagnosis with a terminal illness) than to Donzelli’s skill at direction. Too many false notes are hit throughout the film for it to truly seem deserving of the praise it has garnered. It is encouraging that French cinema is opening up to a fresh generation of young female filmmakers, but too often this seems more to be the product of a politique des copines (the directors being friends or relatives of those already established in the industry) than to the rise of genuine filmmaking talent. Maïwenn [le Besco]’s Polisse – dealing with a Parisian child abuse police unit – also seemed to be indicative of this trend: bizarrely given a Competition jury prize, a film that at its best had the potential to be a good episode of an American crime show was instead blighted by Maïwenn’s own appearance as a bourgeois photographer, who, after mutely standing on the margins of the frame for most of the film, is inexplicably given an unmotivated romance with one of the gruff cops (played by the similarly mononymic rapper Joeystarr).

Polisse, in following on from the Dardennes, the Ramsay, the Sen, the Guédiguian and many others, was nonetheless indicative of one of the predominant themes of the festival: the abuse, mistreatment, neglect or abandonment of children by their elders. In fact, Mandelbaum (again) would note that “the theme of sacrificed childhood has vampirised the Festival”, speculating that this “universal martyrology” has its roots in the sentiment that we can not even guarantee the next generation “a minimum of sustainability, whether social, moral or ecological.” (2) An extreme, in this regard, was Schleinzer’s Michael, a tale of a child held captive by an Austrian paedophile, certain scenes of which will surely have censors in more priggish countries (such as my own) grasping for the nearest pair of scissors.

Perhaps the most vivifying screenings in Cannes, however, were those of the two films made clandestinely in Iran by directors under prison sentences for their work – Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulouf – and smuggled into France on USB sticks. I am not a priori against the imprisoning of filmmakers, indeed some of them should be put on trial for crimes against humanity (Spielberg, Cameron, Henckel von Donnersmarck…), but the treatment of these two by the Islamic Republic is chilling. It was a relief, then, that their films, In Film Nist (This Is Not A Film, credited to Mojtaba Mirtamas) and Bé Omid é Didar (Good Bye), were, despite major aesthetic differences, both powerful works – there’s nothing worse than a shoddy film made for a worthwhile cause – and testaments to the stifling political conditions under which the filmmakers were constrained to practice their art. Nonetheless, a certain smugly liberal self-satisfaction could be detected in the stance the Cannes organisers took towards the censorship of filmmakers elsewhere (not a problem in the enlightened West, it seems), and in certain gestures, such as the seat kept empty for Jafar Panahi at Quinzaine screenings, which were made all the more hollow by the treatment meted out to von Trier. If indeed “the words of censored filmmakers are terribly missed” as promos at the Quinzaine did not cease to remind us, then why not reserve a seat for the troublesome Dane next to his Iranian partner-in-crime?

But this should not detract from a festival which showed that the sexagenarian Cannes still retains its vitality and ability to kick up a storm. Harvey Weinstein was reported as saying that this was the “best Cannes in 25 years”. (3) I am in no position to judge the validity of these comments, but, after landing back on planet Earth, where my precious press accreditation means nothing, where I no longer have to negotiate a path through a minefield of red carpets, limos and hysterical celebrity-worshippers, and where I am no longer able to attend five or six screenings a day while still worrying that I am missing crucial films, I am licking my lips at the prospect of a return to Planet Cannes in 2012.

P.S. My report is already disgracefully over the word limit allotted to me (but, my dear ogress, there was so much to talk about!); a final point, however, demands to be discussed. Perhaps one surreptitious area in which Cannes 2011 represented a genuine revolution was in the nature of the projections themselves. A distinct majority of the screenings I attended were digitally projected, and while sometimes this was entirely appropriate (numerous works were eminently digital by nature, and the projections were of a reliably high quality) other films were done a disservice by this practice. It would seem a sensible rule of thumb that a work shot on celluloid should also be screened on celluloid, but this was something that the aleatory process of deciding on a projection format that seemed to reign in Cannes was unable to deliver. I had previously been convinced of the capacity for 35mm projection to robustly stand up against its digital brother, and for peaceful co-existence to last between the two techniques for a long time to come. But I am no longer so sure. Perhaps this was one of the last editions of Cannes which will feature film projection as anything other than a niche phenomenon. If so, I hope I will not be the only one to shed a tear for the death of a screen beauty.


  1. See: Jacques Mandelbaum, “À Cannes, la bataille des sections parallèles”. In: Le Monde, May 21, 2011.
  2. Jacques Mandelbaum, “SOS enfance sacrifiée sur les écrans”. In: Le Monde, May 17, 2011.
  3. See: Peter Bradshaw, “Cannes film festival 2011: a roundup of the jury prizes”. In: The Guardian, May 22, 2011.