Director Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr at Cannes.

David Gulpilil was not in Cannes to collect his best actor award for Charlie's Country, but director Rolf de Heer and co-star Peter Djigirr were. Photo: Getty Images

As goes the world, so goes Cannes. Even though it often feels like it takes place on a different planet, the Cannes Film Festival is actually a good reflection of the real world, despite itself. Thus this year, we have had a lot of war, child abuse, incest, suicide and death. Religion and fundamentalism took a beating, but there were also films that made the spirits soar. And there was a new film from Jean-Luc Godard, the 83-year-old French iconoclast, to make nearly everyone scratch their heads.

Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language) was Godard in 3D, which was startling. At one point the image on screen was different, depending on which eye you closed. Two points of view at the same time, but you had to choose your eye. Open both and you go mad. The trickster remains tricky.

The Expendables 3 co-stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Harrison Ford arrive in Cannes by tank.

Among the more bizarre sights at Cannes this year was that of the cast of The Expendables 3 rolling into town on a tank. Photo: Yves Herman

French Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan framed most of his competition entry Mommy in a ratio that doesn't exist, confining the image to centre of screen, in a sort of portrait mode. This powerful and riotous story of a working-class single Quebecois mother trying to raise a 15-year-old boy with ADHD only expanded to full screen in the film's rare moments of happiness. When the bad times rolled back in, so did the image. It was gimmicky, but brave. Dolan is someone to watch.

Standing ovations can be ambiguous at Cannes. Some film-makers get them for simply arriving in the theatre, before the film screens. Audience responses may differ in the morning (press) or the evening (more general public). Nevertheless, the press screening ovation for Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country was unmistakably warm and long. David Gulpilil, a kind of muse for de Heer (Ten Canoes, The Tracker), gives a mesmerising performance as a senior Arnhemland man buffeted by the effects of the Australian government "intervention". Stopping the grog coming into Aboriginal communities and getting rid of weapons pushes Charlie out of his country; he drifts into heavy drinking with the long-grassers in Darwin, then to prison. The film questions the intervention's real effects and gives an eloquent portrait of contemporary Aboriginal life. It also has an emotional grandeur that audiences here loved. The film screened in the competition sidebar, Un Certain Regard, where Gulpilil picked up a well-deserved best actor prize.

Another major standing ovation followed The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about the great Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, son of the lensman. In turns beautiful and terrible, ranging from the highlands of West Papua to the dying children of sub-Saharan Africa, the film offered a stunning tour of the best and the worst of human behaviour. The toll of photographing so much war and death was clear in the work that Salgado and his wife have done to rehabilitate the Salgado family's clapped-out cattle ranch in central Brazil. The ranch is now a rainforest and national reserve, after they planted 2.5 million trees.

The horror of war continued in a couple of competition entries, most powerfully in Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, an extremely potent criticism of the effects of imposed Islamic fundamentalism on a community in Mali. Although now living in Paris, Sissako was born in Mauritania and spent most of his youth in Mali. The film is a tragedy about a deeply religious man whose family is blown apart by a murder and subsequent trial under sharia law, imposed by occupying troops from the north. Sissako's humanity, as well as his artful filmmaking, made this film universally popular, although it will not be viewed as warmly in parts of the Islamic world.

The second war film was from Michel Hazanavicius, whose Oscar-winning silent comedy The Artist was such a hit here three years ago. The Search, again starring his wife Berenice Bejo, is set in Chechnya in 1999. Bejo plays a humanitarian researcher for the European Union who takes in a Chechen boy after his parents have been murdered by invading Russian troops. Although too long, the film's recreation of that war is effective and unstinting. Some critics were less impressed by the uncontrolled sentiment.

The criticism of Russia's recent leadership continued in the Russian competition entry Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev, an absorbing and superbly confident drama set in a fishing community in northern Russia. The film is drenched in vodka and firearms, with some unexpected humour before the poetic and troubling finale. At one point, a policeman drags out framed official pictures of every recent Russian leader before Yeltsin, in order to provide a popular target for some recreational shooting.

Amongst the more surreal moments of the festival been the arrival in town of a publicity caravan for the old-guys-in-action movie The Expendables 3, due out in August. Sly Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes rolled into town atop Russian tanks, which might have been seen as an act of gross insensitivity given the tensions in Ukraine, or further evidence that the real world is not the film world after all.

Picking winners in Cannes is of course, a mug's game. As jury chair Jane Campion considered the verdicts, to be announced early Sunday morning Australian time, the late betting was on Turkish film Winter Sleep for the Palme d'Or, with strong competition from Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, a drama with Steve Carell in a straight role. Marion Cotillard was looking strong for a best actress award for her work in the Belgian film, Two Days, One Night, directed by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

It's perhaps more useful to say that the 18 films in competition contained no real stinkers and a good number of striking, often beautiful films. Two of them were by women and there was a good mix of youth and experience. The health of the competition gives a sense of the health of world cinema in general, and where it is headed. As goes Cannes, so goes the world, in that sense.

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