Here is the enduring paradox of Cannes: the sea is blue, the sun is shining, the palm trees and the fish soup invite you to relish the joy of life, yet here you are spending your days in dark rooms watching films that, by and large, lure you into blackest despair. Many of this year's films carry the message that we're all going to hell in a handcart, and that life's a bitch and then you die (or in the case of a film aptly named Struggle, life's a bitch but at least thank God you're not a Polish migrant worker living with a middle-aged S&M-loving Austrian businessman).
It was predicted that, with Hollywood largely keeping away this year and a scarcity of the expected big names, Cannes would be fertile ground for new discoveries. But no one could have predicted how damp the whole show would be. One American critic told me that this was the worst Cannes he'd known in 13 years. It certainly had the worst opening film in memory, the French costume romp Fanfan la Tulipe, and it was overall a conspicuously lame year for the French, with only one exciting new name to be found languishing in the Critics' Week sidebar - Siegrid Alnoy, with a ruthlessly stylish study of female alienation, Elle est des nôtres. In competition, the usually dependable André Téchiné trudged his way through Les Égarés, a dreary wartime vignette starring Emmanuelle Béart, while erstwhile enfant terrible François Ozon contributed the pedestrian, middle-aged Swimming Pool, with Charlotte Rampling as a repressed English thriller writer holidaying in France and being inspired by wild child Ludivine Sagnier. Rampling turns in a crisply grumpy performance as a starched PD James type, but it's all as predictable as a minor Claude Chabrol film.
The competition film I most rated - though I seem to stand alone here - was Brazilian director Hector Babenco's Carandiru, an extraordinary three-hour epic of life in a grisly Sao Paolo prison. It's a doorstep-novel of a film, and very theatrical, as prisoners in the grimmest conditions tell their stories - sometimes shocking, sometimes outrageously funny, even in the midst of Aids, squalor and horrifying violence.
Another of the few worthy contenders is Gus Van Sant's Elephant. Inspired by the late British director Alan Clarke's Northern Ireland film of the same name, it's a thinly-disguised recreation of the Columbine high school massacre, shot with the dispassionate coolness of an installation video, and following the mundane paths of a bunch of teenagers on the fatal day. It's not entirely new, but completely absorbing, and although some American critics felt that Van Sant shouldn't even have considered such perilous subject-matter, it's proof that he's returned to real film-making after a string of lucrative, lukewarm duds.
The Palme d'Or front-runner, and the film you're going to be sick of discussing before long, whether you see it or not, is Lars Von Trier's Dogville. With a deluxe cast including Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny and a barely visible Lauren Bacall, this stern morality play stars Nicole Kidman as a mystery woman who arrives in a small Rocky Mountains town in the Thirties. At first the quaintly cosy locals take her to their hearts, but before long, Grace sinks into the stoic martyrdom that generally seems to be the lot of Von Trier's heroines. The film's big stylistic trick is that the action takes place entirely on a flat sound stage with the barest props, the borders of houses marked out with white lines, and everyone miming the opening of doors. Many found it grippingly watchable; others, me included, found three hours of this a little arduous. The whole cutesy Thornton Wilder tone, and John Hurt's knowing novel-style narration are arch beyond belief, even if Von Trier is finally out to debunk the myth of American good-neighbourliness. The apocalyptic moral payoff is as hard to swallow as the celestial bells at the end of Breaking the Waves, but then folie de grandeur is part and parcel of the Von Trier package. As an artistic achievement, Dogville is audacious if questionable, but - apart from a blank, one-note Kidman - the performances are dazzling, with Ben Gazzara's possibly the best in the festival.
Highly impressive, in a much quieter way, was Uzak (Distant), a drama by up-and-coming Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It's a slow, meditative tale of two men - a disillusioned photographer and his unemployed friend - experiencing varying shades of despair in a largely snowbound Istanbul. No, don't stop reading - Ceylan's beautifully shot piece is one of those films you immediately want to see again: moody and haunting. It has a beautiful poker-faced sense of humour too - the critics here, for whatever reason, seemed to particularly appreciate a sight gag about watching porn but trying to persuade your flatmate that you're engrossed in Tarkovsky.
In the Un Certain Regard section - which was indeed more uncertain than not this year - one of the few highlights was Young Adam, the second feature by Scottish director David Mackenzie. Based on the novel by Scotland's leading proponent of 1950s beat culture, Alexander Trocchi, this featured Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton in a haunting and decidedly chilly story about a young would-be writer and serial Lothario whose past starts unfolding to reveal a very nasty knot of existential dilemmas indeed. Already notorious as the film that does for custard what Last Tango... did for butter, it met with mixed responses among British critics, and it should give pause to anyone who thinks of McGregor as that nice young man singing Elton John songs in Moulin Rouge. At any rate, it's stern stuff, and that rare thing, an unapologetic British art film. (At time of writing, we're yet to see the British competition film that's bound to be an unapologetic art film and then some - Peter Greenaway's new fantasia on uranium, The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story).
Not many smiles were to be had this year, but at last a real highlight, Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. No one knew what to expect given that the film was cloaked in secrecy, but that was just it - there was nothing to expect. A lo-fi home movie written, produced, directed, edited, photographed by and starring Gallo - if you're going to be an auteur, you might as well be thorough - The Brown Bunny comprised two hours of what you might call meGallomania. Gallo films himself as a sports cyclist driving across America, occasionally stopping to ride his Formula II motorbike, wash down his van, or - in a scene that had the press show audience in raptures - put on a jumper. Just to temper the minimalism, Chloe Sevigny turns up towards the end to join him for some tearful psychodrama and to give him an enthusiastic and apparently authentic blow job in stark close-up. Gallo rounded the whole thing off with some high-pitched moaning - his take on Brando's stricken "Stella! Stell-aaaah!" routine perhaps - and when the final credits rolled, the critics' mirth was unbounded, euphoric. Cruel? Crueller than La Scala Milan on a rough night, undoubtedly, but even in Cannes, films this narcissistically crazy are few and far between. No Palme, for sure, but Gallo certainly contributed to the gaiety of nations.