More glitz on Cannes red carpet than on screen

There are few big contenders for the Palme d'Or in this mediocre year

The Cannes Film Festival ends tonight, after 12 days that have seen major star power on the red carpet, several revered auteurs booed, and a perplexing and under-par competition line-up. At tonight's closing ceremony, the jury – led by the Italian director Nanni Moretti and including Ewan McGregor, Diane Kruger, Jean-Paul Gaultier and the British director Andrea Arnold – will announce their decision on the Palme d'Or, although they won't be choosing from an embarrassment of riches.

In a year that critics agreed was lukewarm, the biggest buzz was on the red carpet, where the stars included Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Zac Efron, and – stepping away from their teen-friendly images – Twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Stewart played a decidedly raunchy role as a sexually liberated child of the Fifties in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, while Pattinson had sex in a limo with Juliette Binoche and gazed into the abyss of late-capitalist collapse in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis.

The final competition film, screened yesterday, at least brought a last-minute flourish. Jeff Nichols's Mud was a strong piece of mainstream American storytelling: an Arkansas-set thriller about two teenage boys who befriend a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey). It features a charismatic turn from McConaughey and a revelatory performance from 15-year-old Tye Sheridan, who appeared in last year's Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life. A Best Actor award for him isn't out of the question.

The festival's biggest talking point was probably the lamentable weather, with outbreaks of torrential rain dampening spirits even more than some of the films. Despite good fare on the menu, there have been few startling discoveries, no newsworthy controversy, and certainly no popular hit to equal last year's surprise gem The Artist. Instead, several big names made more or less experimental films that were booed (though not even that heartily) at press screenings – notably Iran's Abbas Kiarostami, Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and even David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis has divided critics, but enthusiasts are touting it as a serious Palme contender – a rival for Michael Haneke's front-runner, Love. Adapted from Don DeLillo's 2003 novel, Cosmopolis stars Robert Pattinson as a billionaire wunderkind crossing Manhattan by limo and coming to terms with his mortality. Also starring Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, it's an elegant and literate film from a director who has abandoned his horror stylings for more cerebral fare.

At the film's press conference, although journalists were warned not to harp on Pattinson's Twilight vampire image, Cronenberg was asked whether he'd deliberately cast the star as a financial bloodsucker. No, said the director: "It's very easy to say that this character is a vampire, or a werewolf of Wall Street. You can't ask an actor to play a symbol of capitalism. This character is a real person, with a history and a past, and that history is not Twilight; it's Cosmopolis."

Pattinson himself denied Cosmopolis was a film about apocalypse. "I think it's a really hopeful movie. It's about a world that doesn't make any sense to anybody and I guess finance is the best metaphor for that. Maybe I'm just a depressive but sometimes I do think the world needs to be cleansed." Asked if he identified with his character, who has an assassin on his trail, Pattinson quipped, "I do have people trying to kill me all the time."

Who will get the gongs?

The Palme d'Or: Critics are in agreement that this year's competition has produced one almost perfect film, Michael Haneke's Love, a pitilessly lucid depiction of old age. Also in the running: Russian war drama In the Fog, and Beyond the Hills, by Romania's Cristian Mungiu. A wild card is Holy Motors, by France's enigmatic Leos Carax, which polarised critics.

Actors The most moving performances were by French veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Love. But they have a few rivals for the acting prizes. Among the women, there are French stars Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, and Isabelle Huppert, showing her comic side in Hang Sang-Soo's slight but lively In Another Country. Among the male candidates, there's Aniello Arena in the Italian film Reality, although he wouldn't be able to collect if he won, as he's serving a life sentence for a triple murder. A strong favourite is Denis Lavant in Holy Motors, as a Chaplinesque Everyman. But don't discount Vladimir Svirskiy in In the Fog.

Duds Lee Daniels's thriller The Paperboy dazzled audiences with incoherent narrative. Its standout scene has Nicole Kidman's character urinating on Zac Efron – leading to the headline "Kidman pisses on the competition".

Off-piste French director Gustave Kervern gatecrashed the photocall for the Brad Pitt thriller Killing Them Softly. He stood among the film's baffled team – including an amused Pitt – before being led away by officials.

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