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Sun, sea and deranged plastic surgeons – the best of Cannes 2011

So that’s it: the last red carpet has been rolled up, the last critic has emerged bleary-eyed from the near-continuous film screenings and the last yacht has sailed out of the bay. While most of us didn’t manage to nip over to the Riviera to enjoy the glitz and glamour first-hand, many of the competing movies have now been snapped up for general theatrical release. So what films should you be keeping an eye out for when they finally make it over this side of la Manche?

Well, one of the first films to be purchased by a major company (the Weinsteins) was also one of the most unexpected. The Artist was made by director Michel Hazanavicius as a tribute to the silent movies of the 1920s. Black and white, dialogue-free and lovingly crafted to be as close to the originals as possible, it may struggle to find an audience; but according to those who saw it at the festival, its light-hearted charm make it enjoyable even to the most sceptical viewer. The story is nothing new – yet another spin on A Star Is Born, as a big movie star helps a struggling young ingenue, only to see her career explode while his own falters, but Jean Dujardin’s Best Actor-winning performance means it is definitely one to watch.

Meanwhile, Sony was quick to pick up distribution rights to Pedro Almodóvar’s entry, the creepy La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In), starring Antonio Banderas as a deranged plastic surgeon who will go to any lengths to perfect a skin impervious to fire after his wife dies in an accident.

The tabloids could barely contain their glee as an abortive press conference with controversial auteur Lars von Trier slipped further and further into disaster territory, with the Danish director indirectly sympathising with Nazis and then trying to dig himself out of the hole in a predictably unsuccessful fashion. The festival bigwigs’ decision to oust him only inflamed the whole ridiculous mess, which is a shame, because his film Melancholia is one of his least critically-divisive yet. A typically bizarre melange of genres, it centres around two sisters (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Best Actress-winner Kirsten Dunst) celebrating the younger’s wedding at a fancy country house, only to have the nuptials (and their growing sisterly tension) interrupted by the news that, err, a planet is about to collide with Earth. Think Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night meets The Day After Tomorrow. Sort of.

Although English-language nominations were surprisingly thin on the ground, Cannes this year did see the return of two legendary American filmmakers. First off, Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris was selected to open the festival, receiving better reviews than anything he’s made since 2005’s Match Point. Set in Paris in the 1920s amongst Jazz Age icons such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the trailer indicates that period detail porn will be enough to ensure it respectable audience. However, the name on everyone’s lips as the festival drew to a close was Terrence Malick, the notoriously reclusive auteur behind Badlands and The Thin Red Line, whose entry The Tree of Life walked off with the top gong, the Palme d’Or. Its the story of a man (Sean Penn) reflecting on his childhood in Texas, torn between his very different parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Malick’s elegaic style wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but those who liked it adored it. Robert De Niro, heading up this year’s jury, was bowled over by the film’s “size, the importance, the intention”, despite some voices protesting that this was another case of pretentiousness being mistaken for profundity.

Meanwhile, specially selected films were screened during an independent competition known as Critic’s Week and Director’s Fortnight. The top award went to Take Shelter, a psychological thriller about a family man (Michael Shannon, recently seen as Boardwalk Empire’s Bible-bashing Agent van Alden) who starts having visions of the Apocalypse. His family don’t seem to appreciate his increasingly frantic efforts to protect them, being more concerned with his family history of mental illness. From what trailers have been released, it looks heartstoppingly tense and beautifully put-together, and with Shannon in the lead it’s bound to keep you hooked.

Overall, then, one of the better Cannes festivals of recent years. Walking the narrow line between inaccessible elitist claptrap and pandering to the masses, it has produced some absolute crackers that will have any film fan queuing outside the local multiplex for that one screening they squeeze in between continuous showings of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Rebecca Gillie