Silent movie, Dardennes' 'Kid' lead Cannes race
A light-hearted tribute to Hollywood's golden age and a bid by Belgium's Dardenne brothers to win a record third Palme d'Or emerged as favourites as the Cannes competition hit the half-way mark.
After a lacklustre start to the race at the world's biggest film festival, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's uplifting portrait of an abandoned boy and the woman bent on saving him, "The Kid With a Bike", delighted critics.
"There isn't a single unearned emotion in this tremendously moving drama," industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter said.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis highlighted the film, which stars Cecile de France (Hereafter) and the remarkable child actor Thomas Doret, as a favourite with "a story about the triumph of grace in a fallen world".
Guessing the taste of the jury, led this year by actor Robert De Niro, is an inexact science. but two separate polls of international critics had the Dardennes out in front after 10 of the 20 films in competition had screened.
It would be their third Cannes win after "Rosetta" in 1999 and "The Child" in 2005.
Another crowd-pleaser was French silent film "The Artist" set in 1920s Los Angeles at the dawn of the talkies, with a fading Douglas Fairbanks-type falling for an up-and-coming starlet played by the stunning Berenice Bejo.
Film trade journal Screen called the black-and-white picture "one of the most joyously enjoyable films" vying for the top prize while Britain's The Guardian hailed it as "glorious... formally daring and sublimely funny".
Cannes, however, thrives on controversy and much of the talk in this sun-kissed French Riviera resort has revolved around disturbing dramas that sharply divided audiences.
French critics loved "Poliss" by homegrown actress Maiwenn about a closely knit Child Protection Unit in Paris based on true stories from police blotters, but foreign reviewers gave it fair-to-middling marks.
"Sleeping Beauty", Australian novelist Julia Leigh's first-time feature about a passive young woman who fulfils the sexual fantasies of rich elderly men while drugged and unconscious, scandalised many viewers and impressed few.
"Soporific in every sense," declared the Hollywood Reporter.
One of the hottest tickets in town was for reclusive US director Terrence Malick's first film in six years, "The Tree of Life" uniting Brad Pitt on screen with Sean Penn for the first time.
Pitt plays a domineering father in 1950s Texas with Penn featured as his adult son in the epic, visually arresting picture, which met with both boos and defiant applause at a packed press screening.
British director Lynne Ramsay, one of an unprecedented four female film-makers in competition, fared better with "We Need To Talk About Kevin" starring Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree.
The Oscar-winning Scottish star was seen as a favourite to claim acting honours at the gala awards ceremony Sunday, while 85-year-old Michel Piccoli's turn as a reluctant pontiff in the Italian entry "We Have a Pope" was a front-runner for the male prize.
Another Cannes contender about children in danger, Austrian first-time film-maker Markus Schleinzer's chilling portrait of a paedophile, "Michael", attracted attention with its subject but left audiences split on its merits.
Art-house cinema goes hand-in-hand with high glamour at Cannes, and 2011 has proved a banner year for the red carpet.
The premiere of the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel brought out Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, while opening night with Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams made for ecstatic crowds.
Meanwhile wheeler-dealers at the sprawling market where film rights are bought and sold for distribution around the world were also pumped up following a recession-tainted 2010.
© 2011 AFP