As you battle your way down the Croisette, the main sea-front Cannes thoroughfare, it is hard to believe that this has been a muted festival. The tourists, photographers, hat-sellers, performance artists, festival guests, press and industry folk still clog up every inch of pavement. The Rolling Stones and Elton John have been in town. The beach-front parties and drinks receptions aboard yachts have been going on as crazily ever before. Nonetheless, this year's Cannes has been short of the usual oomph. Thus far, the main competition films haven't inspired the critics, and there hasn't been much consensus about what has been good.
Mathieu Amalric's debut feature as director, On Tour, about an impresario (played by Amalric himself) touring around France with a troupe of burlesque dancers, was acclaimed by some in the French press as a masterpiece. Many others thought it a rambling and wildly self-indulgent attempt at a Gallic version of a John Cassavetes film. Former Bond villain Amalric is a fantastic actor who brings crumpled, seedy charm to his role as the cut-price Diaghilev, but he has no flair at all for structure or storytelling.
The Frenchman could take a lesson from Mike Leigh's Another Year, which was given a 15-minute ovation at its official screening and is one film that everybody seems to agree is very good indeed. Leigh gives the same licence to actors as does Amalric, but his film also has a shape and discipline about it. A few years ago, the British director was controversially – and bizarrely – snubbed by Cannes, who turned his film Vera Drake down. This week, there has been the sense of a reunion between friends overcoming a row. Leigh has basked in the attention and the very obvious affection in which he is held in these parts. This isn't an affection that stretches to all French film-makers. One director who has been the subject of enormous controversy is Rachid Bouchareb. His film Outside the Law, (about three brothers during the Algerian war of independence) has infuriated right-wing French commentators.
Critics have been surprisingly stern toward Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's yakuza movie Outrage. This is a film about Japanese gangsters in dark suits and white shirts doing very nasty things indeed to one another. Decapitations, severed tongues, chopsticks through the ears, lopped-off fingers and carved up faces are all included. If you're of a remotely squeamish disposition, it's the kind film you'll probably want to watch with a blindfold. What many critics who gave it an X in the trade paper polls failed to notice was that it's a highly stylised and even comedic account of yakuza life. It's also a very pure piece of cinema. Charlie Chaplin might have blushed at the bloodshed but he would have admired the anarchic ingenuity with which the stunts are staged.
Certain titles have utterly polarised opinion. Some were rapturous about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful while others dismissed it as portentous claptrap only partially redeemed by Javier Bardem's performance. Bertrand Tavernier's period drama likewise split the Cannes critics into warring tribes.
Some films have been excoriated even before they've been shown. That has been the fate of Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus, his follow-up to his Oscar-winner of 1994. Long in advance of its official screening this weekend, the whispers were going along the Croisette that this was a Sputnik-sized dud. Its box-office performance in Russia, where it was released in a three-hour version, was patchy. Russian journalists, many of whom seem to distrust the director because of his close contacts with the Putin government, were disdainful about the film, which is showing in Cannes in a shorter version. However, buyers who saw the film at advanced screenings described it as an epic war movie in the vein of Elem Klimov's Come and See and full of spectacular, lurid and poignant set-pieces. These include a scene in which a German pilot tries to defecate, from a plane, on Russian refugees on a Red Cross boat. When he is shot, carnage ensures. Equally vivid, apparently is a scene in which a young nurse tends a dying soldier, allowing him the fleeting glimpse he craves of her naked body. Mikhalkov hopes to make yet another part of Burnt by the Sun. The film's reception this weekend will go a long way to deciding whether he will be given the chance to do so.
As ever, the Cannes competition pits the most diverse films against one another. Jury president Tim Burton and his jurors will have to pick between films as different as Burnt by the Sun, a Second World War epic with lots of soldiers being crunched under tanks, and Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, a two-hander about a gallery owner (Juliette Binoche) and a British academic (William Shimell) pottering around Umbria.
Former Palme d'Or winner Kiarostami's first foray away from Iran is a talkative but very rewarding affair which plays like a self-reflexive updating of Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy. As in Rossellini's film, which featured George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, a priggish and pompous Englishman and an impulsive European woman spend much of the time bickering. The dialogue is playful and profound. Kiarostami skips between high-minded discourse about art and aesthetics and discussions of relationships.
Whether the characters are discussing the quality of the wine in the local trattoria or holding forth on the differences between original artwork and copies, the film never loses its incisive intelligence. Binoche gives a wonderfully sparky and playful performance.
Set in the most scenic parts of rural Italy, Certified Copy is a long way removed from the backbiting of Iranian politics, so it was almost a jolt in Cannes this week when Kiarostami demanded the release of his fellow Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi, under arrest in Iran for several months. Panahi should have been in Cannes alongside his old colleague Kiarostami (he had been due to sit on the jury for the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the festival). His absence was a reminder that for some film-makers, facing "disapproval" isn't just a matter of dealing with hostile reviews – it can mean being put behind bars. Panahi's plight threw into stark relief the more self-indulgent antics of some of the guests in Cannes this week.
This year hasn't offered a vintage competition. The selection has been anaemic by comparison with 2009 (which included major new features by Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Haneke.) Even so, the weekend may provide a welcome boost for British cinema. Two of the UK's heavyweights, both former Palme d'Or winners, Leigh and Ken Loach (with Route Irish) are competing for the main festival honours. Second-guessing a jury presided over by Tim Burton is unwise, but it would be very surprising if Leigh or Loach didn't win something.
EYES ON THE PRIZE: MAIN CONTENDERS FOR THE PALME D'OR
The ecstatic response to former Palme d'Or winner Leigh's latest opus (above) may have partially reflected the shortcomings of some of the other contenders. He is still well-placed for one of the main prizes. If he doesn't win, lead actress Lesley Manville might.
Of Gods and Men
Xavier Beauvois's drama about a group of monks in terrorist-torn Algeria has been winning plaudits from most of the critics but may be too dour for Tim Burton's tastes.
Bookmaker Paddy Power installed Ken Loach as 3-to-1 favourite to win the Palme d'Or – utterly absurd given that no-one had seen the film (a very late addition to competition) at that stage. By the weekend, we'll have a far clearer sense of whether Loach has a real chance of winning the main Cannes prize for the second time.
Outside the Law
Rachid Bouchareb's second Cannes competition entry (after "Indigènes") has stirred up plenty of controversy ahead of its screening late in the festival. The director has already been accused of "falsifying history" in his account of the French-Algerian war. Often, the most contentious films are the ones that win the gongs.
Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus
In spite of its patchy Russian box-office performance and the whispering against it by the Russian critics, Mikhalkov's latest (above) is expected to be a full-blown Second World War epic with tremendous set-pieces. Jurors weary of the intimate, character-driven fare elsewhere in the competition may applaud its sheer scale.