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Has Cannes lost the plot?

Its glamour remains – but the world’s top film festival has fallen out of step with modern cinema, says Geoffrey Macnab

If you want to know why film festivals (even Cannes, the biggest of them all) are struggling to maintain their relevance, start with Jean-Luc Godard.

In Cannes next week, Godard, now 79, will be presenting what many believe will be his final feature: Film Socialisme. In advance of the premiere, the arch-provocateur has made a subversive trailer, which lasts under two minutes and shows not just highlights but the entire film speeded up. In the frenetic digital age, Godard is telling us, audiences don't have the time or the patience to go to festivals to watch 35mm prints of art-house movies in cinemas. They want instant 90-second gratification on YouTube.

Godard is one of the legendary figures in Cannes history, leading protests in 1968, showing many of his films there. Now he regards it as a place to sell movies, not to celebrate the art of cinema. "Now, it's just for publicity. People come to Cannes just to advertise their films," he said on one of his last forays to the festival.

In Cannes this year, the chasm between mainstream cinema and art-house festival fare is more gaping than ever. The 63rd festival opens with Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood. That's just the kind of big-budget event movie that will provide the required images of stars on the red carpet and of swarming paparazzi. However, Scott's riproaring foray to Sherwood Forest isn't representative of the the type of films that will be seen during the rest of the festival fortnight.

The outside world enjoys the diversion of Cannes. Whatever Europe's economic or political woes, Cannes is a fixed point in the calendar: every May, there will always be topless starlets on the beach, egregious publicity stunts, crazy announcements and celebrity gossip. To observers from afar, the event seems enjoyably frivolous. In the public imagination, this is still the playground of Brigitte Bardot and the setting for high-rolling parties on yachts. The intense seriousness with which the festival-goers treat the event adds to the comedy of it all. The colour and glaring light of the Riviera has always made a strange backdrop for an event which revolves around spectators sitting in darkened halls.

The perennial challenge for the festival is to marry the worlds of business and cinephilia. In strong years, this will happen automatically. The films selected for the main competition will excite the critics, sell to distributors all over the world and eventually turn up at "a cinema near you". 2009 offered a vintage crop: Lars von Trier's Antichrist gave off the whiff of scandal and controversy that every festival needs, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds offered its irreverent B-movie, popcorn vision of the Second World War and two heavyweight art-house films, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, provided the required critical ballast.

On paper, this year's competition looks very much flimsier. The selection is tilted heavily toward esoteric art-house fare. Plenty of this looks promising. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's first (partly) English language film, The Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche as a gallery owner who meets an English author in Tuscany, is intriguing. Kiarostami is one of the most revered film-makers currently working and critics are curious to see how he manages the transition from Iran to Europe. The Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, whose work has become increasingly whimsical and self-indulgent in recent years, is returning to his Yakuza roots with Outrage. Britain's former Palme d'Or winner Mike Leigh, who never makes a bad film, is back in Cannes for the first time since 2002's All or Nothing with Another Year. The new feature tells the story of a happily married middle-aged couple who endure other people's problems.

The Bourne Identity director, Doug Liman, is also in the competition with Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. This is about the CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose cover was blown by the Bush administration during the furious politicking about the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Meanwhile, out of competition, there are films from Woody Allen, Oliver Stone and Stephen Frears.

Even with these names, this year's Cannes looks short on real oomph.

The usual pre-Cannes hype hasn't been as strident as normal. Hotel rooms and apartments are easier to book. Parties have been cancelled. In the current straitened times, ostentatiousness is frowned upon – which creates an identity problem for an event like Cannes at which hedonism and conspicuous consumption have always come with the territory. In what appears to be a fit of self-flagellation, BBC Films has decided not to hold its annual beachfront cocktail party – usually one of the key networking events for aspiring British producers. The lingering effects of the credit crunch are still being felt. In the production sector, less movies are currently being made because they are harder to finance. As has been well chronicled, there has been a big contraction in what the US studios call the "speciality sector" – that's to say companies like Miramax, Paramount Vantage, New Line and Warner Independent, who used to back the intelligent, upscale US indie movies that galvanised festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

It is hardly the festival programmers' fault that they have fewer films to choose from. There is, though, a sense that they are still clinging to an old-fashioned notion of what arthouse cinema should be. It is instructive to consider the ages of some of the directors in official selection this year. There will be a lot of white hair on the red carpet. Godard is in his late seventies. Manoel de Oliveira, who is presenting The Strange Case of Angelica in Un Certain Regard, is 101. Russian auteur Nikita Mikhalkov, who is unveiling his sequel to Burnt by the Sun, is 64. Bertrand Tavernier, also in competition with La Princesse de Montpensier, is 69. Kiarostami and Leigh are also in their late sixties. They are all still producing exceptional work, but they're hardly young turks.

Way back in 1957, François Truffaut, when he was still a fiery young journalist, launched an outspoken attack on Cannes. He wrote that French cinema was dying "from its false legends" and its preoccupation with "quality cinema", and called Cannes "a failure dominated by compromises, schemes and faux pas." If he was still alive, Truffaut might have thought that Cannes today is in need of some creative renewal. We are in a world of 3D and Avatar, of file-sharing and video on demand. Cinema attendance may be booming, but big event movies are dominating at the box-office, not art-house fare. In the face of rapid and jarring technical change, the major European festivals are carrying on much as they have always done, showing 35mm prints of new films by venerable auteurs to audiences of critics who themselves appear to be growing older and older.

There was a time when these festivals seemed at the absolute centre of debates about cinema. Whenever, and wherever, new talent emerged, whether it was film-makers from Iran or Romania or Argentina, the festivals would champion it – and the films would be given an international life on the back of their festival screenings.

Arguably, the role of film festivals is now changing. Where once they showcased the new, they are now more concerned with protecting an old and increasingly endangered tradition of auteur cinema. Movies can now be watched on phones, on TVs and on the internet. The technology of cinema has advanced in rapid fashion. Whether the aesthetics of film-making have kept pace is another question altogether. Critics would be very hard pressed to argue that there are better, formally more sophisticated movies being made today than there were when auteurs like Jean Renoir, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick were in their prime. Festivals continue to programme work that is in the spirit of such auteurs. As they do so, their relevance risks dwindling. As Jean-Luc Godard's speeded-up version of his new film suggests, outside these festivals, fewer and fewer spectators have the time or the inclination to watch such fare.

The Cannes Film Festival opens on 12 May

For further reading: Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival by Kieron Corless (Faber and Faber)