The day after the 60th Cannes Film Festival's glamorous launch on May 16, French daily Liberation ran on its cover a photograph of a very contented Frenchman waving to the masses as he walked down a red carpet. The headline read, 'The opening ceremony', and the article went on to report how he had worked the crowd, reaching out to the people and ending his routine with a rousing, soundbite-laced speech.
But he was neither a stalwart filmmaker nor a glamorous actor. The setting was an overcast Paris, not sunny Cannes, and the man was none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected president, who found himself competing with Wong Kar-wai, Jude Law and Norah Jones for media space.
Sarkozy was sworn in on the same day as the Hong Kong director's My Blueberry Nights opened the festival, prompting practically every newspaper in France to run a photograph of the new president next to one of Law, who stars in the film. The juxtaposition may seem surreal, a collision of worlds - after all, it's Hollywood stars that had the Croisette buzzing: the Brangelina love-in for Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart and the Clooney-mania surrounding the premiere of the flaccid Ocean's Thirteen.
Then again, Cannes has always been political, long before politicians started acting like celebrities. The festival might be best known these days for the A-list celebs that descend on the Cote d'Azur with their flashy threads, even flashier jewellery and penchant for seemingly endless nocturnal revelry, but it was actually launched to rival the one in Venice, which Benito Mussolini had established the previous year, in 1938, to promote fascist propaganda films.
Cannes is also the festival that shut itself down in 1968 in solidarity with the students and workers on strike throughout France. Its Palme d'Or, the top award, has gone to several trenchantly anti-establishment films - Lindsay Anderson's If ... (1969), Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina's Chronicles of the Years of Fire (a 1975 epic about the Algerian struggle for independence) and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Last year's laureate was Ken Loach's tale of Ireland's independence struggle The Wind that Shakes the Barley. There have also been plenty of gritty social dramas in which political circumstances have been seen to have shaped the personal.
This year, with Moore's US-health-industry-bashing Sicko lining up alongside 11th Hour - an eco-documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio - as out-of-competition entries, the jury faced a crop of films that dealt with personal experiences of the political rather than looking directly at the big picture. And the films expected to stir controversy hardly made a diplomatic ripple as they were more than mere polemical exercises.
That's what earned Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the Palme d'Or this year. Praised by jury, critics and audiences alike and part of a series entitled Tales from the Golden Age, 4 Months is intended to reflect on life in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu's tyrannical regime without making explicit reference to the politics of that era. So there are no sinister Securitate officers loitering, no mass rallies and no explicit mentions of food shortages.
Instead, the story revolves around a young student's efforts to obtain an illicit abortion for her roommate. It draws the viewer slowly into the gloom that stifles the young women even without the threat of outright political repression, as their benighted society is revealed through such characters as abortionists who demand to be remunerated sexually and intellectuals who spend their lives gossiping and gorging themselves. It's an intense drama lifted by a spectacular performance from Anamaria Marinca as the young Samaritan.
More explicit in its message is Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, which won the award for best screenplay. Born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, Akin continues his exploration of the cultural and social chasm between Turkey and Germany.
The film revolves around a group of characters who travel between the two countries, seeking their roots, their relatives and their past (and future). Akin doesn't shy away from the tortuous relationship between Europe and Turkey. In one scene, Hanna Schygulla's maternal figure responds to the polemics of her daughter's Turkish girlfriend, a political dissident, by saying how everything will get better once Turkey joins the European Union - an irony, given that the young woman's asylum application is later rejected on the basis that the Turkish authorities wouldn't use torture now that the country is in accession talks with the EU.
Proving that a good message doesn't necessarily make a good movie is Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export, which also involves two characters swapping countries. A young Ukrainian woman heads to Austria to make money, as a pair of truck-drivers go the other way to make a delivery and seek sexual adventure. It's a strangely alienating and unmoving film, its boldness rarely measuring up to the courage of filmmakers such as Michael Haneke, who tackle the same themes with a mixture of visual intensity and intellectual integrity.
Seidl's flop was, thankfully, one of few at this year's festival. The consensus is that the festival has celebrated its 60th anniversary with some flair and one of the best selections of recent years - and not just in terms of 'message films'.
What makes this year's screenings a pleasure is visually ravishing fare such as Carlos Reygada's heart-achingly beautiful sunsets in Silent Light, Bela Tarr's technically superb (but lyrically undercooked) long takes in The Man from London, Julian Schnabel's imaginative direction in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Christopher Doyle's elegiac camerawork on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park.
And then there's one of the major talking points at Cannes this year: Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino's homage to the trashy exploitation Grindhouse films of the 1970s. With a story 'so bad it's good' - about young women getting killed as they try to fight a psychotic man (Kurt Russell) spreading murderous mayhem with a 'death-proof' race car on rural highways - it has probably given hope to the hundreds of producers and filmmakers who packed the festival trying to woo potential backers for similar fare.
To these entrepreneurs, who typically think of B-movies as a way to make a quick buck, it's probably more surreal to see Death Proof competing for a Palme d'Or than Sarkozy's grin side by side with Law's in the papers.