Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and the Palme d'Or

As Cannes prepares to announce its winners, Jonathan Romney looks at the highs and lows
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The Independent Culture

Now that all the competition films have been seen, the verdict is clear on this year's festival, which closes tonight. It has been a superior vintage, consistently good despite few out-and-out dazzlers. It was a more director-driven, less showbizzy festival than in recent years, although the paparazzi had plenty of celebs to collect. Among the visitors: Penélope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese and two French legends, football titan Eric Cantona and venerable rockeur Johnny Hallyday. Also visible on the Croisette were the inevitable Paris Hilton, Doctor Who-in-waiting Matt Smith and, bizarrely, Spandau Ballet. Singer Mariah Carey made a surprise impression as an actor, unrecognisably dowdy as a social worker in the US drama Precious. And Jim Carrey presented the comedy I Love You Philip Morris, in which he plays a gay con man. Greeting an audience gathered in a severe sub-basement cinema, he quipped, "It's great to be here in this bunker built by the Resistance."

The festival's final stretch brought a much-awaited burst of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll – or, at least, booming techno – in the form of Enter the Void, the latest from French cinema's arch-provocateur Gaspar Noé. The Argentinian-born director shocked the festival in 2002 with his hyper-violent rape-revenge drama Irréversible, and this year again put Cannes audiences through the mincer with his story of a drug dealer's slow death.

Set in Tokyo, and inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001, the English-language Enter the Void is about a young man who gets killed in a drugs raid, sees his life flashing before him, then hovers as a spirit around his stripper sister, with whom he has a quasi-incestuous relationship. As usual with Noé, the film contains some strong and troubling content: notably, lots of graphic sex, including an extreme close-up of a penis, and scenes in which children witness their parents having sex, then being killed in a violent car crash.

But the film – greeted by both cheers and boos at its screening on Friday – has also stirred up controversy as the most downright experimental film in competition. Shot in extremely long takes, as if from within the dead man's consciousness, it features stretches of darkness and of glaring light, and interminable sequences in which the hero's soul whizzes over the Tokyo streets and in and out of windows, ashtrays and drains.

Arguably the most psychedelic film since the heyday of Flower Power, it makes extensive use of digital effects, both to boost its colours into lurid DayGlo, and to generate an extended acid-trip sequence that briefly turns Enter the Void into the world's most expensive screen-saver. It's a trip, for sure, but an oppressive and ultimately somewhat hollow one.

Asked in his press conference about the extreme nature of his film, Noé quoted the Hollywood director Douglas Sirk: "To make a good melodrama, you need sperm, blood and tears." He added: "I've put those three elements together in my movie." Despite the film's references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Noé denied having any spiritual leanings. "I'm extremely materialistic – I believe in matter and the power of will. That's it."

The director was still completing the film two days before its Cannes premiere, and it played in a version some 10 minutes longer than the advertised two and a half hours. Enter the Void still isn't quite finished, says Noé, who's planning further refinements: "The sound's going to be more mental. It's the same movie, but it's going to be trippier."

Tonight, the jury – headed by Isabelle Huppert and including Hanif Kureishi and actresses Robin Wright Penn and Asia Argento – announces its award choices. It's always a tough one to guess, but it's a safe bet that the top prize, the Palme d'Or, won't go to the final competition film screened, Face, arguably the nuttiest on show. French screen legends Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Pierre Léaud, plus a mystified-looking stag, appear in an opaque set of tableaux about an attempt to film Salome in Paris. Less a film than a performance art project, Face also poses the great mystery of the festival: how can you possibly show supermodel Laetitia Casta performing the Dance of the Seven Veils and still end up with such a boring film?

So who should, or could, win tonight? My money – or what's left of it here given the current exchange rate – is on the following.

Palme d'Or: The critics' favourite throughout the festival has been French prison thriller A Prophet, but I'd love to see it go to Michael Haneke's superb drama The White Ribbon, about the roots of Nazism.

Best director: The great French veteran Alain Resnais, 86, for his dazzling comeback film Wild Grass.

Best screenplay: It could go to Quentin Tarantino's sometimes dazzling, sometimes just plain gabby Inglourious Basterds, but Jane Campion's elegant 19th-century dialogue for Bright Star would be the right choice.

Best actor: Two contenders lead the field: outright newcomer Tahar Rahim in A Prophet, and Filippo Timi as Mussolini in Italian drama Vincere. But don't discount much-liked British actor Steve Evets, star of Ken Loach's Looking for Eric.

Best actress: Surely a shoo-in for either Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Mussolini's abandoned wife in Vincere, or Abbie Cornish, star of Jane Campion's Bright Star.

And my personal prize for Most Ludicrous Festival Moment: The satanic talking fox in Lars von Trier's horror film Antichrist: "Chaos reigns", indeed!