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With nearly all films seen, it is still all to play for at the Cannes Film Festival. In the best tradition of this madness on the Med there have been cheers and jeers, coos and boos, standing ovations and noisy walkouts, sometimes accorded the same film at the same showing. No one, broadly, agrees about anything. And if you want the unexpected, come, as ever, to Cannes.

Take the gender agenda. I lose count, as a long-time field tripper in the land of cinema, of how often I have heard the cry (not least in Hollywood): “No good roles for women over 40.” Cannes is the anomaly that proves the adage. Annually there are good roles for women over 40; this year there have been two sensational ones.

The cast of ‘Youth’ (left to right: Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, director Paolo Sorrentino and Rachel Weisz)

In Maïwenn’s Mon Roi, one of three female-directed French films in competition, a boldly expressive Emmanuelle Bercot — herself the director of the festival-opening first, La Tête Haute — batters back, vocally and sometimes physically, at her battering partner, a rogue adorable played by Vincent Cassel. As a love story, it’s overwrought and bagged out with parallel plotting: the heroine’s struggle against a chronic knee injury. (Is it symbolic? Is it saying: “This is how hard it is for women to stand independently of their men”?) But Bercot is terrific, and so are the best scenes — raw, vivid, exposed — of conjugal warfare.

You can’t accuse either Mon Roi or Todd Haynes’s Carol, hugely acclaimed here, of standard male chauvinism; even if you think their female stars have been herded, somewhat, into victimhood roles. After a woman director, have a gay male director. Haynes, doughty Queer Cinema pioneer, brings a zero-machismo, molto espressivo approach.

Carol is a Sapphic follow-up, you could say, to his Far From Heaven (2002): a girl-on-girl passion drama ripped from Patricia Highsmith’s non-thriller novel The Price of Salt. Set, like Far From Heaven, in the 1950s, it shares that film’s sumptuous generosity of feeling. Fabulously shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, it’s a virtuosity vehicle for Cate Blanchett as the rich older beauty who falls for mousy-pretty store assistant Rooney Mara.

Gayness back then was a crime for men and barely legal for women. The lovers are pursued across America by Blanchett’s vindictive hubby, rattling child custody threats. Bold, mannerist at times, costumed to kill by Sandy Powell, this is a big-expressioned film that, simultaneously, never loses the light touch or the command of lithe yet lethal minutiae.

As always at Cannes, there have been good films on the edge of things. Not just fringe-shown but going to the brink of what cinema can do or dare. Seen in the competition sideshow, Un Certain Regard, was Cemetery of Splendour, a haunting reverie on time and history in the shape of a sci-fi fantasy — defiantly non-linear — from Thailand’s ever innovative Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And in the Directors’ Fortnight, a late-night audience went mad, in the best sense, for Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, a crackerjack siege thriller — ultra-violent — about a rock group trapped by murderous rednecks in backwoods Oregon. Saulnier, who had a Fortnight hit two years ago with the moody noir murder drama Blue Ruin, is one to watch: an anarchistic auteur electing to thrash about in the genre mainstream.

Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’s ‘Carol'

Taiwanese veteran Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin also combines populism with personal vision. For a historical yarn with martial arts moments, set in ninth-century China, it’s defiantly avant-garde: full of ellipses, rubato and occasional narrative opacity. But there is astonishing, jewelled cinematography from Mark Lee Ping Bing, one of the unsung wizards of world cinema.

There have also been catastrophes in Cannes. Admired directors, even former Palme d’Or winners, can burst into flames on re-entering the atmosphere. From Gus Van Sant, festival victor in 2003 with Elephant, came The Sea of Trees, a film that united everyone in hating it. This maundering, maudlin fable stars Matthew McConaughey as a would-be suicide approaching final flashpoint via interminable flashbacks. To which add cod-mystical dialogue and soupy music. The setting is Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, apparently (Google it) the world’s top place for self-topping.

Valerie Donzelli’s Marguerite and Julien, a kitschily overstyled incest tale from France and the competition’s third woman-directed film, was little better. And Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, yesterday’s toast with Dogtooth (2009), became today’s toast in a different sense with the reputation-crisping The Lobster. In this seriocomedy about death, love, revolution and euthanasia there is too much on the menu, all of it either undercooked or burnt to a cinder.

I wasn’t thrilled by Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth either, though this Italian hyperrealist (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) has, we know, his fan base. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play old friends, a conductor and film-maker, looking back on life and mingling memories in an Alpine spa hotel. It’s one of those hotels that bad dramas use for all-human-life stories. The film is fetid with archness, contrivance and a coy campiness. Hundreds loved it.

Michael Caine (left) and Harvey Keitel in Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Youth’

Despair at Cannes is always an overture to renewed hope. Late in the competition came the magnificent Chinese film Mountains May Depart, surely the best so far from the country’s best working director, Jia Zhang-ke. It’s a three-part epic, spread over 25 years, about a changing country — or rather the changing citizens of a country in danger, Jia warns and has long warned, of losing its identity and integrity.

The story’s third part is set in an Australia functioning, in 2025, as a kind of off-world China: an earthly space station where the estranged son of the film’s heroine (Zhao Tao) strives to discover who, where and what he is on a globalised planet where “belonging” is an endangered condition and the Esperanto of the techno-gizmo is replacing the human tongue as an effective communication medium. (Tell us about it . . .)

Many Cannes critics — not this one — disliked the last section. They preferred the warmly human preceding story, a triangular love affair freighted with rich yet subtle symbolism between Zhao Tao and two men, a blue-collar striver and a handsome, headstrong, westernisation-prone go-getter.

For me, the whole movie is tremendously done. It never sacrifices astringent commentary to melodrama or sentiment. And it concludes with a small, brilliant, overpoweringly poignant scene that may be, just about, the best ending in modern cinema.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Cemetery of Splendour’

You can’t second-guess Cannes, and why would you want to? Even Woody Allen, entering its necromantic orbit, can pass through an initially hostile sound-bite barrier — “dead director walking”, rhubarb the anti-Woodys — to get a mini-ovation. Irrational Man was deemed less good than Blue Jasmine but better than his last, Magic in the Moonlight. Joaquin Phoenix’s cynical burnout of a philosophy professor meets smart-and-brittle student Emma Stone. Consequence: love, dialectics and murder, in that skittishly captivating order.

You can’t predict the Cannes movies, and often festival folk can’t even agree on the reality outside movies. Half of us say it’s more crowded than ever this year, the other half less crowded. Evidence for the first: packed Palais screenings, red-carpet armies baying nightly at the starry ascents of Colin Farrell, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda . . . (But be warned: if you’re not a star, never wear rhinestone flats. One evening guest was slung out for ignoring high-heel protocol and properly gemmed footwear.) Evidence for the second: a Croisette you can actually walk along and a bizarre absence of seafront buskers. Have they all been busked to outer space? Are we approaching the Rapture? Should we be told . . .?

Never mind that space, watch this one. The Palme d’Or, and supplementary frond embraces, will be announced on Sunday. Favourite for main prize: Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre or Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart. Have a side flutter on the Hungarian dark nag, Son of Saul.

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Photographs: Eric Gaillard/Reuters; Yves Herman/Reuters

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