The Cannes Film Festival ends tonight, with disappointed critics in agreement that this 63rd edition offered a lacklustre crop. There was little buzz, scant glitz and not many titles to get really excited about – although the selection was an honourable one, with few out-and-out duds.
Even so, the festival in no way measured up to last year's vintage package, which featured such talking points as French hit A Prophet and Lars von Trier's hyper-controversial Antichrist. That may be partly a matter of unlucky timing for festival head Thierry Frémaux. Many hotly awaited titles were simply not ready in time, and so it could be this autumn's Venice Film Festival that unveils new features by the likes of Terrence Malick and Sofia Coppola.
For red carpet-watchers, there was a smattering of star power. Grizzled gravitas was provided by Michael Douglas – returning as monster financier Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – and Russell Crowe, star of little-liked opening film Robin Hood. British up-and-comer Carey Mulligan, making her Cannes debut, proved a magnet for the paparazzi, as did jury member Kate Beckinsale, whose extravagant and seemingly never-ending wardrobe was a talking point among fashionistas.
Naomi Watts was here with two films that failed to raise critics' pulses: Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Fair Game, a political drama in which she plays a CIA operative. Juliette Binoche was not only the star of this year's festival poster but also made a splash in Certified Copy, by Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami. Also there was Kirsten Dunst, but at the other end of the Croisette, presenting her own short film Bastard in the festival's no-frills sidebar Critics' Week.
Meanwhile, one person who grabbed headlines by not turning up was veteran New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard. His aggressively inscrutable Film Socialisme was for once not accompanied by the highly quotable press conference that is his Cannes trademark. Godard announced his no-show in a terse, enigmatic fax to Mr Frémaux, claiming: "I would follow the festival unto death, but not a step further." He was detained, he claimed, by "problems of a Greek nature" – which people took to mean financial difficulties.
The festival produced one political controversy in the shape of Outside the Law (Hors la Loi), by the French director Rachid Bouchareb. The film, about the Algerian liberation movement the FLN, was screened on Friday amid protests from right-wing demonstrators, army veterans and former French colonists. While an estimated 1,300 people marched against the film, there was massive police presence on show, with CRS officers in riot gear around the Palais.
At his press conference, Bouchareb denied that his film was anti-French, and that he had not intended it to be a "battlefield", but to open up debate. He also said that he modelled his film partly on Ken Loach's IRA drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2006.
Outside the Law is an extremely powerful film, but does it stand a chance of winning the Palme d'Or tonight? It's anyone's guess which film will finally most impress the jury, headed by the director Tim Burton and including stars Kate Beckinsale and Benicio del Toro, and the Spanish auteur Victor Erice. But the final tally of critics' scores in the industry paper Screen International had Mike Leigh's Another Year as the frontrunner, followed by Of Gods and Men – another French drama about tensions in Algeria – and the South Korean film Poetry, a subtle melodrama about an elderly woman coping with the effects of Alzheimer's.
Likeliest candidates for Best Actress are Poetry's lead, Yun Junghee, and Lesley Manville in Another Year. Best Actor contenders include the ensemble cast from Of Gods and Men, headed by Lambert Wilson; and Youssouf Djaoro from Chad as a father caught up in civil war in A Screaming Man. And, although critics gave the thumbs down to Biutiful, by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the jury could be impressed with its star, Javier Bardem, as a denizen of Barcelona's underworld.