With the Cannes Film Festival into its first weekend, festivalgoers continue to endure torrential rain - but we haven't yet been showered with masterpieces. Still, the weekend has brought one major discovery, a new film starring Benicio del Toro. The film is Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, and is the first US-set feature by French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose previous work has been in an unrepentently Gallic art-house vein.
In places, this very American film could almost have been made by Clint Eastwood in his latterday grand manner. Based on a true story and set in 1948, it stars del Toro as a Native American war veteran suffering from trauma and analysed by a Romanian anthropologist - a lively, if sometimes over-impish turn by Mathieu Amalric. Desplechin directs in a sombre and sometime impressionistic register, but this is essentially a chamber piece about the life of the mind and about modern American history. Britain's Gina McKee lends charismatic support, and del Toro looms quiet but large as the vulnerable hero. It's probably the front-runner so far for Steven Spielberg's jury to consider as a Palme d'Or winner.
But it has strong competition from A Touch of Sin, a sprawling but propulsive drama from China. Director Jia Zhangke has long been one of Chinese cinema's radicals, and here he's made a powerfully angry thriller, a set of four linked stories about characters reacting violently to the social and economic abuses of the new China. Chinese directors have in the past had troubles with the authorities for presenting even implicitly critical films in Cannes, so it's a matter of some amazement here that Jia has managed to make a film so overtly critical of corrupt officialdom.
While Cannes this year is thin on high-profile British titles, there's been one much acclaimed UK film. The Selfish Giant is a Northern drama by Clio Barnard, about two young boys drawn into the dodgy underside of the scrap metal business. Tenuously inspired by the Oscar Wilde story, it's a gritty, pugnacious - and sometimes poetic - piece of realism, with two astonishing performances by young discoveries Conner Chapman and Sean Thomas.
Some bigger names have been less successful. In competition, Iran's Asghar Farhadi - director of art-house hit A Separation - divided audiences with his French film The Past. It stars Berenice Bejo, from The Artist, as a woman in the throes of divorce from her Iranian husband, but while some critics loved the film, others - myself included - found it a laboriously overwrought melodrama.
One prestigious dud was Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, based on a Vanity Fair article. This was about a group of teenagers robbing the residences of minor Hollywood celebs, including Paris Hilton (whose real house is seen in the film, in all its tasteful glory). The Bling Ring proved as shiny and hollow as its title suggests, but Harry Potter graduate Emma Watson scored points with a witty turn as an LA airhead.
And major shocks? Only one so far, but nasty enough to be getting on with - the graphic torture in a striking Mexican drama about drug gang violence. The actual title of Amat Escalante's film is Heli, but it's now routinely referred to on the Croisette as “the Mexican Flaming Penis Movie”.Reuse content