Lars von Trier, Melancholia, 2011, still from a color video transferred to 35-mm film, 130 minutes.

“I HOPE NO ONE gets a clit cut off in this movie,” a colleague sitting next to me said this morning before Lars von Trier’s Competition entry Melancholia. She was, of course, referring to the self-inflicted snipping of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s tender lady part in Antichrist, which was in contention for the Palme d’Or in 2009 and proved so inflammatory to some journalists that the director was booed at his own press conference.

Melancholia, though it depicts the end of the world in its prelude, is much less provocative than von Trier’s previous film; it’s the flip side to Competition titles like The Tree of Life and Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu, which mythopoeically explores the birth of Japan. (If bad kids and the worse things done to them dominated the first week of the festival, the second has been defined by the big bang and doomsday.) Kirsten Dunst, who replaced Penélope Cruz, plays Justine, a new bride who suffers from crippling depression. Her mental illness is so severe that she drives away her groom during their wedding reception. Justine is tended to by her sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), who grows more anxious about the impending approach of Melancholia, “a planet that has been hiding behind the sun.”

At the Melancholia press conference, von Trier was met not with fourth-estate fury but polite, if tepid, response. When a correspondent from Indonesia asked if he were happy with the film, the director, known for taking none of these press events seriously, responded, “When I saw the stills, I kind of rejected it a little. Maybe it’s crap. I hope not. But there’s a really big possibility that this [film] might not be worth seeing.”

The Q&A proved such a pleasant, dull affair that von Trier couldn’t resist stirring up trouble. In answer to a London reporter’s query about the Teutonic influences in the film—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is heard throughout—and von Trier’s discovery in 1989 that his biological father was German, the director replied, “I thought I was a Jew and was happy. And then I found out I was really Nazi.” As Dunst, sitting to von Trier’s left, began to squirm, he continued, “I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a little bit. [. . .] I’m for the Jews—but not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass.” After the filmmaker admitted his admiration for Albert Speer, a Canadian journalist decided to jump right in with this crucial question: Did von Trier consider Melancholia his answer to the blockbuster? His response: “Yes, we Nazis try to work on a grander scale.”

Melissa Anderson

Left: Oliver Hermanus, Skoonheid (Beauty), 2011, color film in 35 mm. Right: Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.

L’AFFAIRE DSK continues to dominate the news: The cover of today’s Libération features a grim-faced Strauss-Kahn gazing downward with the simple headline “K.O.”; the right-wing Nice-Matin also has a photo of the embattled IMF chief on its cover next to the words “En prison,” though more prominent placement is given to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—“Le couple glamour du Festival”—on the red carpet.

Of course, sometimes the movies themselves remind the four thousand film journalists assembled here that topics weightier than Terrence Malick exist. Unspooling at 8:30 this morning, Aki Kaurismäki’s Competition title Le Havre, a droll yet compassionate look at the perils faced by illegal immigrants, has been one of the most warmly received films by the tetchy press corps so far. In the Finnish director’s second film set in France after La Vie de Bohème (1992), former artist Marcel (André Wilms), now working as a shoe shiner in the port town of the title, shelters and provides safe passage for Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young refugee from Gabon hoping to be reunited with his mother in London. Kaurismäki’s wry take on immigration—an especially thorny subject in France—moved one journo to talk back to the screen. When a character solicits the opinion of a Vietnamese friend of Marcel’s, he responds, “Hard to say, for I don’t exist”; one row behind me, I heard someone, thrilled to have his own views validated, proudly rejoinder, “Voilà.”

My opinion was too aggressively sought out by an unknown publicist who grabbed my arm as I stumbled out of the Salle Debussy—my eyes adjusting, molelike, to the Côte d’Azur sun—after watching Oliver Hermanus’s Beauty, playing in Un Certain Regard. An overcooked, protracted tale of a married, self-loathing, dangerous top, the twenty-eight-year-old South African director’s sophomore effort is vying for the second “Queer Palm” (the inaugural award went to Gregg Araki’s Kaboom last year); the QP jury will, according to its translated press release, “watch all the movies dealing with the gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and queer topics and disturbing the genders’ established codes.” But the jury no longer has a lavender watering hole to host its awards ceremony: The legendary Cannes boîte Zanzibar, Europe’s oldest gay bar, closed earlier this year, torn down to make way for something less likely to disturb the genders’ established codes: an ice cream shop.

Melissa Anderson

Left: Bertrand Bonello, House of Tolerance, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 125 minutes. Right: Terrence Mallick, The Tree of Life, 2011, color film in 35 mm.

PUNCTURING THE HIGHLY UNNATURAL, hermetically sealed bubble of the festival yesterday, the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault in New York was deemed important enough to interrupt the usual coverage of photo calls and obsequious interviews on the Cannes TV station, which broadcasts on monitors throughout the Palais. But for the members of the press corps at 8:30 this morning, no event in France was more earth-shattering—literally—than the world premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the most anticipated title in Competition this year (and in 2010, when several attendees remained delusionally convinced that the infamously slow-working director would somehow finish his fifth movie in four decades in time for the festival).

On a micro level, The Tree of Life, set primarily in the 1950s in Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), tells the story of a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of three sons, struggling against the rule of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt); on a macro, the film takes on nothing less than the beginning of the universe. Meteors erupt, lava flows, dinosaurs roam the earth; the whispery voice-over of Jack’s beatific mother (Jessica Chastain) implores, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” As expected, Malick’s cosmic grandiosity—often sublime, sometimes ridiculous—proved too much for many journalists, who began booing viciously before the film even ended; not even the rapturous applause of Tree of Life’s comparable number of admirers could fully drown out their disdain.

The origin of the world—in Gustave Courbet’s sense of the term—is also explored in Bertrand Bonello’s Competition entry House of Tolerance, which takes place in an upscale Parisian brothel, the Apollonide, at the very beginning of the twentieth century. “Men really should spend more time staring at a woman’s sex,” says one habitué of the den of vice. Despite derailing more than once, House of Tolerance sustains its mood of lust and languor. Like Malick, Bonello has no qualms about deploying his own absurd special effects (or anachronistic sound track): In the final days of the Apollonide, the prostitutes dance with each other to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”; meanwhile, one physically damaged house veteran, crouched in a corner, cries tears of cum.

Melissa Anderson

Left: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. Production still. Cyril (Thomas Doret). Right: Markus Schleinzer, Michael, 2011, color film in 35 mm.

CANNES, NOTORIOUSLY, is an event of extreme incongruities, which are nowhere more apparent than during the Competition red carpet screenings at the Lumière Theater. Every movie, no matter how austere or ghastly its subject matter, receives the same tacky treatment: An announcer fervently calls off the names not only of the film’s cast and crew but also those of any celebrities—usually on the C-list, or lower—as they march up the Lumière steps to a medley of deafening American and Euro pop. Only in Cannes could you hear, as I did while racing to find the press queue for Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” before a film about a thirty-five-year-old pedophile who keeps a ten-year-old boy locked in his basement. Just a few yards away, lithe young men and women dressed all in white offered to give free hugs.

Schleinzer’s first film maintains an impressive tonal assurance despite its appalling topic; both the criminal (Michael Fuith) and his prisoner (David Rauchenberger) are precisely observed. Michael continues the festival’s dominant theme so far: children who are monstrous (We Need to Talk About Kevin) or the monstrous things that are done to them (Polisse). The Kid with a Bike by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who are vying for an unprecedented third Palme d’Or, straddles both categories. Cyril (Thomas Doret), the ginger-headed eleven-year-old of the title, earns the nickname “Pitbull” from the thugs who live near his Belgian housing estate, but his ferocity is justified: The boy’s father (played by Dardenne veteran Jérémie Renier) tells Cyril, who’s spent days desperately trying to track him down, that he never wants to see him again; Dad confides to Cyril’s foster parent that his only child “stresses him out.” Though the structuring of the Dardennes’ latest seems both too schematic and haphazard, their young star, in his first screen role, joins the most impressive on-screen talents seen at Cannes this year: those who are years away from getting a driver’s license.

Melissa Anderson

Left: Maïwenn, Polisse, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Production still. Right: Nanni Moretti, Habemus Papam, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Production still.

POLISSE IS THE THIRD of four Palme d’Or–vying films helmed by women, but its director has the distinction of being the only one in the Competition lineup with a mono-moniker: Maïwenn, who decided to drop her surname, Le Besco (she is the older sister of Isild Le Besco, another actress-writer-director). Based on real cases from the Paris Child Protection Unit, Polisse examines the brutal work and messy domestic lives of ten CPU officers, and stands out as the most clamorous, tonally awkward film shown in the festival so far. That the director cast herself in a completely superfluous role as a photographer assigned to document the unit—who later falls in love with its shoutiest member, Fred (the one-named, no-spaced Joeystarr)—typifies the film’s many misjudgments (others include scenes in which the officers crack up, as did the audience, at the misfortunes of two barely teenage girls). One colleague admitted he endured the two-hours-plus running time just so he could hiss at the end; I wished I’d heard him over the stupefying applause during the final credits.

Also confounding were the claps and laughs that greeted Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”), another Competition title by another triple threat: Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or in 2001 for The Son’s Room. The director, who co-wrote the script with two others, plays a renowned psychoanalyst summoned to aid the newly elected pontiff, played by Michel Piccoli, who screams, “I can’t do this!” just as he’s summoned to the balcony of the Vatican to greet his flock. The Holy Father, presented as a sweet, sympathetic, frail old man, flees his handlers and mingles with civilians. During his walkabout, he falls in with a group of actors performing Chekhov; back at the Vatican, Moretti’s shrink organizes a double round-robin volleyball tournament for the cuddly cardinals. Only in the final minutes of Habemus Papam does Moretti acknowledge, ever so discreetly, the enormous crises facing the Catholic Church. We have a papam; we also have pap. Why not a pope smear?

Melissa Anderson

Left: Julia Leigh, Sleeping Beauty, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Production still. Lucy (Emily Browning) Right: Gus Van Sant, Restless, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Production still. Annabel Cotton and Enoch Brae and (Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper).

“OH! WAS THAT FESTIVAL SEX?” wisecracked a publicist outside the Salle Debussy this morning after he was accosted below the waist by a too-aggressive member of the scrum pushing to get in to see Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which opens Un Certain Regard. The bodily contact along the Croisette was much lustier than what was on-screen: Written by first-time screenwriter Jason Lew, Restless recounts the romance between two teenagers—orphaned, funeral-crashing Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a naturalist with a brain tumor given three months to live. Wasikowska, who gives one of the best interpretations of roiling adolescent passion in the recent Jane Eyre, helps leaven the emo goo of Restless, a film that droops with its own tender earnestness.

Another kind of festival sex—depraved, baroque, and mostly offscreen—takes place in Sleeping Beauty, the first film from Australian novelist Julia Leigh, one of four women in the Competition lineup this year (the highest number in the festival’s history). Emily Browning, who, coincidentally, replaced Wasikowska in the lead role, plays Lucy, a university student with a series of odd jobs: medical-research subject (for which she patiently submits to having a long tube threaded down her esophagus), café waitress, office filer—and an upscale sex worker paid to go into deepest slumber while geriatrics do what they want with her. The white-haired gentlemen, however, are respectfully asked to obey the rules of the soignée proprietess: “No penetration, and take care not to leave any marks.” Slobbering, violent mouth exploration (including possible tooth extraction), and creaky dry humping are permitted.

Bodies—covered in tomato sauce?—also writhe in the dream-sequence opening scene of Lynne Ramsay’s Competition entry We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel about a teenage mass murderer told from the perspective of his mother, played by a hollowed-out Tilda Swinton. Ramsay’s first film since 2002’s Morvern Callar traces the development of the sociopath of the title from infancy. Though Ezra Miller is undoubtedly sinister as the archery-obsessed adolescent Kevin, the festival may need to create a Palme d’Enfant to acknowledge the formidable, creepy talents of Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin at age eight—and is the most baleful child actor I’ve ever seen.

Melissa Anderson