Film: Cannes Report

Cheerful and entertaining, joyful and uplifting – this year's Riviera jamboree has not dazzled, but it has delivered a rare crop of inventive cinema in which the story shines

The Cannes Film Festival is nothing if not hard work – oh yes it is, and don't dare ask me how I've been enjoying my "holiday" in the sun.

Critics here watch four, maybe five films a day, quite apart from any writing we do. Now, to up the ante, the festival security corps is stopping us from bringing water bottles into screenings. This is cruel and unusual treatment – now we're not just risking deep vein thrombosis in these long sittings, but dehydration too.

This new measure has stirred some ill feeling among the press, and yet the festival mood has been unusually cheerful. This may not be the most memorable Cannes ever – there have been no dazzling meteors out of nowhere – but the standard has been consistently high. And festival director Thierry Frémaux has kept his promise that this year we'd have a good time, with a whole crop of films that entertained, cheered and confirmed your faith in cinema as an art form that can engage and delight.

For example, there has been the good news that storytelling isn't dead. That always-inventive fabulist Pedro Almodóvar won cheers at the press screening of his The Skin I Live In. Announced as his first horror film, it's really a characteristically convoluted shaggy dog story about a mad-genius plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) and his beautiful, mysterious patient (Elena Anaya). There's not much horror involved, but plenty of Hitchcockian tension, and some perverse and very Freudian mischief in the high Almodóvar style. It's his most entertaining film in ages.

Rather simpler, but a total treat – and many critics' bet for the Palme d'Or – is the latest from deadpan Finnish wit Aki Kaurismaki. His French-language Le Havre is a loving pastiche of old French cinema tropes – a mock-sentimental story about a shoeshine man (André Wilms) who befriends a young African immigrant.

Film noir borrowings, tearjerker touches, cheap'n'cheerful rock'n'roll, and the usual cameo from Kaurismäki's dog – all the ingredients are here, but with a new political passion. Le Havre is a joy, even if the actors walk around looking as if it's a rainy Thursday.

But the feel-good hit of the competition – and I can't believe that phrase has even been uttered since Jacques Cousteau had his moment of glory here – is The Artist. Director Michel Hazanavicius – the man behind the hugely successful French spy spoofs OSS 117 – has crafted a pastiche of black-and-white silent cinema, with Gallic box-office king Jean Dujardin as a Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckling star who hits the skids when talkies come in, and Bérénice Bejo as the ingénue on the rise (ah oui, c'est "Singin' in the Rain" à la francaise).

Crammed with sight gags and movie in-jokes, it's a film that will delight you even if you haven't done a PhD on the works of D W Griffith: the gags about sound and silence are brilliantly inventive, and Dujardin uses his tailor's-dummy handsomeness to superbly self-mocking effect. Bejo, who resembles the young Joan Crawford, gives a star-making turn, although the show is comprehensively stolen by "Uggy", Dujardin's faithful mutt. You'll laugh, you'll cry – and you won't have to worry about quoting any of the lines.

Although there's been no bombshell, the competition has had two genuinely controversial films. One is the new film by the elusive Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life. Fans awaited it as the Second Coming and Malick may have been thinking along the same lines. The Tree of Life is the story of a Texan family over several decades, with Brad Pitt as an authoritarian dad and newcomer Jessica Chastain as a mother who talks to God in voice-over and levitates in her back yard. But it's also the story of Creation itself, from the Big Bang, through the dinosaurs – yes, there are dinosaurs – to the afterlife, where you get to hug your mom and pop on the beach.

It is unarguably a work of massive visionary ambition – and at the same time, vaporous religiose balderdash, a film that Stanley Kubrick might have made if he'd been an evangelical preacher. Part cinematic symphony, part cathedral, part Norman Rockwell greeting card, The Tree of Life is spiritually coercive and very unpalatable. I don't think it was just the atheists who were booing at the press show.

My personal competition surprise was the latest from Lars von Trier. I've always been a sceptic about the Danish provocateur, and his last film Antichrist got my goat and then some. But Melancholia transfixed me.

It trumps Malick from the start, by staging the end of the world, no less, in a delirious prelude with some of the most rivetingly strange image-making von Trier has yet produced. Then it does a surprise sidestep by giving us a tart comedy of manners set at a wedding where everyone (including Kiefer Sutherland and a very funny Charlotte Rampling) behaves appallingly, and the bride (a mesmerising Kirsten Dunst) just behaves strangely. Finally, as Dunst awaits the apocalypse, it becomes genuinely eerie and not a little Bergmanesque.

I'd forgotten what a great director of actors von Trier can be, and although the film has divided critics, it's his first for a while in which the awe outweighs the shock. Of course, von Trier couldn't resist shooting his mouth off in his press conference, claiming he was a Nazi and saying he "sympathised with Hitler a little bit".

There's now little sympathy for von Trier in Cannes: the festival has officially declared him persona non grata. Thus do the mighty fall – although, there's still a chance that Copenhagen's antichrist could win an award tonight.

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