Tears and triumph on the Cannes red carpet

Cannes 2009 signals hard times for serious moviemakers, says Geoffrey Macnab

There was a moment at the end of last Sunday's first press screening of Lars von Trier's Antichrist when you realised just how absurdly audiences in Cannes sometimes behave. As the credits rolled and von Trier's dedication of his film to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky appeared on screen, the wolf whistles began. A few claps were drowned out by the hisses.

The irony was that Antichrist was one of the boldest, most innovative films in what has been an unusually strong competition, even if it did betray a certain self-loathing. It's a study of a grieving couple, trying to get over the trauma of the death of their baby child – a death for which they feel responsible. The first hour of the film plays like something out of Bergman (Scenes From A Marriage, von Trier-style) or Tarkovsky. Many scenes are shot in claustrophobic close-up. We see the husband (a therapist played by Willem Dafoe) becoming increasingly fascinated by the condition of his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He is arrogant enough to think his professional expertise will cure her. Instead, slowly and surely, he turns her against him.

Some of early sequences (a very graphic sex scene) are deliberately in your face. Von Trier knows how jaded arthouse audiences have become and he wants to startle them out of their apathy. As his producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen told me after the screening, "it's built into the genetics of the film to be provocative". Even so, the scene doesn't seem gratuitous or pornographic. He is exploring the links between sex and grief.

Von Trier's formal control is astonishing. The black and white prelude, filmed in slow motion to the accompaniment of an opera aria, is beautiful and agonising. Once the couple retreat to their remote cottage in the woods, von Trier's debt to Tarkovsky's Mirror becomes obvious. Landscapes are filmed in lyrical but threatening fashion. The sound editing is extraordinarily detailed. Whether it's acorns falling on a window pane, floorboards creaking or the rustling of leaves, every sound registers.

Then the film suddenly and spectacularly goes off the rails. This is where von Trier's self-loathing comes in. It's as if he doesn't have the confidence to make a truly grown-up film and feels he has to resort to adolescent shock tactics. Genital mutilation and a scene of blood being ejaculated are just some of the elements as the Dane crashes clumsily into Saw territory. It is not hard to understand why some see von Trier as a demented misogynist.

Nonetheless, he conjures up some astonishing and apocalyptic imagery. If the film is a failure, it's a very brave one.

Less gruelling by far was Ang Lee's very amiable and upbeat Taking Woodstock. Just as von Trier was attacked for being too intense, Lee found himself being chastised by certain critics for not being intense enough, at least by comparison with previous films like Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain.

However, the film was meticulously crafted and plotted – and far more subversive than it first appeared. It is the story of Elliot (Demetri Martin), a genial but enterprising young soul who returns to the near derelict hotel run by his parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and ends up hosting the Woodstock Festival in his backyard. James Schamus's screenplay, adapted from a book by Elliot Tiber, is picaresque and playful. The film evokes a lost age of American innocence.

One of its achievements is to portray hippiedom in a way that is funny without being patronising. The mood is very benign. When thugs try to take over the security, Jake dispatches them with a baseball bat. Nothing – whether torrential rain, acid trips or the lack of toilet facilities – spoils the Edenic atmosphere. Even the cops wear flowers in their helmets. Staunton gives a gloriously over-the-top performance as the parsimonious, bossy matriarch. In one scene oddly reminiscent of old Carry On films, Jake and Sonia eat some brownies, not realising that they're laced with drugs, and go wild in the rain. If Cannes had awards for best comic performances, they would surely be in the running.

The 1960s US that Lee shows may be caught in the middle of the Vietnam War but it's still an innocent time, at least for the burgeoning youth movement. The film ends with a fleeting reference to Altamont, the Rolling Stones' concert at which Hell's Angels provided the security and there was a murder of a black man called Meredith Hunter in the crowd.

Lee's point is surely that a line can be drawn that goes all the way from Altamont – which marked the symbolic end of innocence – to the degradation and apathy of the George W Bush era.

Early in the festival, most big-name directors appeared to be delivering. Jane Campion's Bright Star, about the tragic love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, was reckoned by many critics to be her finest film since the equally brooding and intense The Piano. Judging by some spectators' responses, it was the most effective tearjerker of the festival.

Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank was reckoned by most to have fulfilled the promise shown in her debut feature, Red Road. The French adored Ken Loach's Looking For Eric, not least because the ex-Man Utd star Eric Cantona was in town to tub-thump on its behalf. (There was a surreal beach front party for the film at which the bars served bitter, multiple TVs played Cantona goals and Howard Wilkinson and Alex Ferguson interviews, and trendy young French cinephiles danced wildly. Cantona appeared late and was treated almost as if he was a Messiah.)

If distributors are too wary to buy arthouse movies – as has seemed to be the case in Cannes this week – then it only stands to logic that they will stop being made. A few years down the line, the Cannes 2009 competition might be seen as one of the last flurries of a filmmaking tradition near extinction.

In future years, the Cannes programmers may well face an uphill struggle to put together a programme that is as strong as the one that kept critics so happy this year ... at least until von Trier took his bow.

THE FIVE BEST FILMS AT CANNES

The Prophet
Jacques Audiard is already a favourite of the critics thanks to The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a gritty, hardboiled French remake of James Toback's Fingers. His new film, a prison drama, has been even more warmly received and is in line for some prize, whether for the director himself or for his previously-unknown lead actor Tahar Rahim.

Bright Star
Jane Campion is back on form. This is surely the kind of film to appeal to a jury headed by Isabelle Huppert.

The White Ribbon
Prior to its Cannes premiere, the Austrians were already talking up the Oscar chances (let alone the Palme D'Or prospects) for Michael Haneke's drama set in a German village just before the First World War.

Enter the Void
Gaspar Noé. Films that screen near the end of the festival – as Noé's hallucinogenic Tokyo-set drama does – often come up on the rails unheralded to win prizes.

Antichrist
Lars von Trier. Not a complete success but it certainly didn't deserve to get booed. Maybe the jury will be kinder than the Cannes critics.

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