Cannes confidential: A critic's-eye view of the festival news

Scandal, glamour, satires on the Pope and Sarkozy, lost masterpieces and the usual suspects: it's all go on La Croisette

Cannes is a curious sealed microclimate where time operates in its own strange way. As soon as reporters have scribbled down the quotes at one hotly awaited press conference, they've forgotten them in the rush to catch the next; as soon as the cameras have popped for one star, another crowd of paparazzi are getting into place for the next red-carpet session. As for the critics, we just sagely stroke our chins and hope we'll see a masterpiece – or at least a film we'll remember tomorrow.



Wednesday

The press conferences begin. Robert de Niro – heading a competition jury that also includes Jude Law, Uma Thurman and the French auteur Olivier Assayas – announces: "I don't know what I'm looking for." None of us does – that's the whole point of coming to Cannes.

The Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci receives an honorary Palme d'Or and announces that he's planning to make a film in 3D: he admits to loving Avatar and shocks cinephiles by suggesting that the format would have been great for Ingmar Bergman's Persona.

Woody Allen charms the crowd – if not the critics – with his opening film. It's heralded at the opening ceremony by Jamie Cullum performing a medley of songs about New York. Some mistake, surely – Allen's film is called Midnight in Paris and is unmistakably French-themed. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy appears in it as a museum guide, but doesn't appear in town, reportedly for "personal and professional reasons". This may be because her husband isn't too happy with Cannes screening a film called The Conquest, which promises a satirical dissection of his rise to power.

The highest concentration of glamour can be found in the lobby of the Palais des Festivals, where there's a photographic display of bathing beauties from Hollywood's golden age – Marilyn Monroe, Esther Williams, a very cheesecakey ingénue Joan Crawford and, just for balance, Cary Grant stripped down to his tennis shorts. The festival is also wearing Hollywood chic on its sleeve this year, or rather on its poster, an unusually stylish black-and-white number featuring a young Faye Dunaway, as pictured by the fashion photographer turned film-maker Jerry Schatzberg. Dunaway was in town for the screening of Schatzberg's 1970 melodrama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, a now almost-forgotten film that French critics in particular will often tell you is an overlooked masterpiece. I didn't catch it here, but the word on the Croisette is that they're right.



Thursday

The competition gets its first sniff of scandal with the Australian film Sleeping Beauty, an erotic drama in which a young woman becomes a prostitute who specialises in slumbering while elderly roués do unspeakable things to her naked body. Critics quip that it is a nice change to see someone in Cannes asleep on screen, not just in the press screenings. The film's young star, Emily Browning – last seen in the CGI monstrosity Sucker Punch – became this year's first major red-carpet debutante.

Another, also Australian, starlet who set the flashbulbs going was Mia Wasikowska, who made her name with The Kids Are All Right and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and who now sports the currently mandatory gamine crop in Gus Van Sant's romance Restless, in which she plays a young woman dying of cancer. The film is barely watchable tosh, but it will boost Wasikowska's profile no end – it might also launch a new contender for the Robert Pattinson sulky-heart-throb crown, the pale and interesting Henry Hopper.

Other stars doing red-carpet duty this week include Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz for the new Pirates of the Caribbean episode, Tilda Swinton and the magnificently potato-faced John C Reilly for We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Jane Fonda, prompting a spate of "Is she really 73?" coverage.



Friday

You don't have to have much to do with film to get the cameras going, of course. Cheryl Cole stalked the red carpet too (far left). Why? Because she can.

The festival's director, Thierry Frémaux, promised more fun than usual in this year's competition, and the light relief started today, with a satire about the Pope (weirdly, the film that Cheryl Cole chose to attend). Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam (already a hit in his native Italy) is about a newly elected pontiff (the French veteran Michel Piccoli) who has a meltdown and goes awol. The film is thinly stretched as pontifical satire goes, but you don't often get to see cardinals holding their own volleyball tournament. We also had Footnote, an Israeli comedy about Talmudic scholars. If you only see one Talmudic comedy this year...

But the film that got the press hot under the collar today was a market screening – Keith Allen's Unlawful Killing, a hack-magnet of a movie funded by Mohamad al-Fayed that stokes up conspiracy theories about the death of Diana and Dodi Fayed. Allen is an unusual choice to direct a measured, objective investigate documentary, but scribes were impressed, after a fashion. The US trade paper The Hollywood Reporter commented: "If the Monty Python troupe ever wanted to lampoon conspiracy-theory film-makers, it would be hard to top this one."

Saturday

The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean episode is business as usual. Press kit quote of the week goes to its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer: "When three films together bring in $2.6bn [£1.6bn] worldwide, you understand pretty quickly that a message is being sent you by audiences." That message, presumably, being: never kill off a cash cow till you've milked the last drop.

Critics gird themselves to watch what could either prove the film that sets the competition ablaze or leave us with very ashen faces indeed – possibly both. Michael is an Austrian film about a man who abducts and imprisons a 10-year-old boy, and was inspired by the Natascha Kampusch case. The director, Markus Schleinzer, was formerly Michael Haneke's casting director, so he was unlikely to give us a romcom. Spirits could be roused, however, by what may be a lighter film than usual from Belgium's Dardenne brothers, The Kid With a Bike. Expect it to muster some red carpet action too – it stars the current darling of European cinema, Cécile de France, who crossed the Atlantic recently for Clint Eastwood's Hereafter.

Meanwhile, fashion bloggers complain that Cannes is more about fashion and luxury than films, with Louis Vuitton, Roberto Cavalli, Chanel et al setting up various stores and pop-up outlets. But who are they kidding? Cannes has always been about "le branding". The Grand Hotel lawn is covered over with pavilions under the livery of Grey Goose, Audi, etc.

Seriously, though – is this any more or less dignified than the roof of the Carlton, which is topped with a billboard for that forthcoming pinnacle of the seventh art, The Smurfs?

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