Cannes Film Festival 2013: Behind the Candelabra, jewel-heists, Heli and torrential rain

After a downbeat and water-logged opening, fine films from the Coens, Clio Barnard and Hirokazu Kore-eda lifted the mood at this year's film festival

Cannes is the world's most prestigious film festival but, earlier this week, as media attention was hijacked by jewellery thefts and security scares, the movies themselves risked being eclipsed.

It didn't help that the festival competition started in such alienating fashion.

One of the first films shown was the utterly brutal Mexican drama Heli, about a family caught up in the drugs wars blighting the country. The director Amat Escalante has plenty of visual flair but no pity for his characters. In the dehumanised world he shows, kids play computer games and grandma cooks in the kitchen as drug gangs torture their enemies in the front room. British viewers were startled that their weapon of choice for beating their enemies black and blue seemed to be a cricket bat.

Almost equally downbeat, although far more effective as a piece of storytelling, was Chinese director Jia Zhangke's competition entry A Touch of Sin, a grimly fascinating portmanteau drama which suggested that corruption, violence and scandal are accepted as inevitable parts of everyday life in contemporary China.

After the bleakness of such movies, Like Father Like Son from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda came as a welcome antidote. The film starts from a simple premise – two sets of parents learn that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth. As the parents ponder what to do, Kore-eda raises profound questions about emotional ties and how children's characters are formed. It is the kind of film one can well imagine Cannes Jury President Steven Spielberg (director of the similarly themed AI) admiring.

Critics who had been equivocal about the European and Asian arthouse films that dominated the Cannes competition responded with near unanimous enthusiasm to the Coen brothers' Greenwich Village folk-singer yarn, Inside Llewyn Davis. That doesn't mean it will win anything. The Coens' No Country for Old Men screened to similar enthusiasm in competition in Cannes 2007 but was then ignored by that year's festival jury.

As has been widely remarked, the Brits didn't feature in this year's competition. They should have done. One of the best films in Cannes was British director Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant, screening in sidebar section the Directors' Fortnight. This is an ingenious and immensely moving adaptation of Oscar Wilde's short story done in a style more reminiscent of Ken Loach or Alan Clarke than of Victorian fairy tales.

The setting is a deprived housing estate in Bradford. The 13-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) is a fiery soul, devoted to his mum and best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) but always in trouble with the authorities. After being excluded from school, Arbor joins up with Swifty to forage for scrap metal they can sell to Kitten (Sean Gilder), the scrap dealer and, in symbolic terms, the "selfish giant".

As in Loach's Kes (1969), the film-makers take young characters marginalised by mainstream society and show another side to them. Arbor may be regarded as a violent delinquent by his teachers but we see a boy with wit, resourcefulness and an extraordinary work ethic. Swifty is overweight and bullied but we quickly discover that he has an intuitive understanding of horses. The richness of Barnard's film lies in the very sure-footed way it combines fable and social realism. Contemporary Bradford may be a long way from the gilded world of Wilde but in spirit, the adaptation is true to its source material.

Also surprisingly moving was Weekend of a Champion, the restored and updated version of the intimate documentary that Roman Polanski produced about Scottish racing driver Jackie Stewart during the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix. The film features a short coda in which Polanski and Stewart look back on their own film from today's vantage point. Polanski confesses that he fell out of love with motor racing because so many of the drivers he and Stewart knew had been killed. The most devastating of the deaths was that of Stewart's old team mate François Cevert, killed in what would have been Stewart's final Grand Prix. Thanks to safety improvements (many of them that Stewart helped implement), the sport is nowhere near as deadly as when Polanski and director Frank Simon made the doc.

This has been a muted Cannes festival overall. The torrential rain storms blighted the parties and red carpet events on the opening weekend, and the economic downturn has meant less partying and publicity stunts. (Hapless Brit rocker John Otway was one of the few to make an impression when he and his masked followers marched down the Croisette to promote the market screening of Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie.)

It's well-nigh impossible to second guess where Spielberg's jury will dispense its prizes. The Coen brothers' claims are hard to dismiss, as are the bravura performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. Alexander Payne's Nebraska has plenty of buzz. If, however, the jurors decide to turn away from US fare in the name of supporting world cinema, Kore-eda's Like Father Like Son and The Past from Asghar Farhadi (the Iranian Oscar winner of A Separation) could well come into the frame.

The Cannes Festival ends on Sunday

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