The weather can be a tad volatile in Cannes. Over the past two years, blazing sunshine alternated with torrential rainstorms that left ill-prepared journalists with several cases of trench foot. At the risk of stretching a pathetic fallacy, the weather has tended to reflect turbulence in the screening rooms. One person's masterpiece was another fellow's travesty.
Things are, this year, calmer on the climatic and critical front. Going into the weekend, two films seemed to be battling it out for pole position in the race for the Palme d'Or: Mike Leigh's Mr Turner, a study of JMW Turner, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's gruelling Winter Sleep.
The latter did spread some division among punters. Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish director of the slow school, has had Cannes success with such lengthy pictures as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. So attendees had some idea of what to expect from the 3¼-hour study of a middle-aged man assessing his life on a rocky outcrop. But Winter Sleep still managed to confound some with the cautiousness of its pacing.
We were still waiting for the consensus to fall behind an unqualified masterpiece. We were also short of a runaway dud.
Let us dispense with the weekend's also-rans. Before the curtain retreated, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent already laboured under the handicap of being the second film on fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent unveiled over the past year. Though arguably more interesting than Jalil Lespert's earlier effort, Saint Laurent didn't do enough to justify its own existence. The picture is attractively decadent and it features a storming central performance by Gaspard Ulliel. But there is nothing much going on beneath the gorgeous, well-appointed carapace.
Before the festival kicked off, there was a great deal of discussion about the dearth of female directors in the official selection. Jane Campion, president of the jury and still the only woman to win the Palme d'Or, acknowledged the existence of sexism in the film industry during her opening press conference. So there was pressure on Alice Rohrwacher, one of two females in the 2014 competition, to deliver something special. Rohrwacher's The Wonders did find some supporters on La Croisette.
But it is a pallid affair. Going among a farming family in a picturesque part of Tuscany, the film meanders lazily from one poorly developed plot strand to the next.
Damián Szifrón's Wild Tales was a great deal more fun. The Argentinean film single-handedly reinvigorates the much-maligned "portmanteau film" with its collection of six vignettes, each dealing with the subject of revenge. The passengers on a flight find themselves strangely connected. A demolition engineer loses patience with the small annoyances of city life. A bride discovers on her wedding day that her new husband has been unfaithful. The film is not likely to win any major prizes, but it certainly offered weary Cannes audiences an invigorating mainstream jolt.
Many had high hopes for the latest from Tommy Lee Jones. Eight years ago, the actor and director won two prizes here for his stunning contemporary western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
The Homesman is a slightly more conventional entry to the same genre. Hilary Swank stars as a Mary Bee Cuddy, a stubborn (is the word "ornery"?) pioneer working a farm in the Nebraska territories when she is required to transport three "madwomen" back home across the Missouri river.
The film doesn’t quite follow through on its feminist ambitions. The depiction of the three misused pioneer women as lunatics and Mary Bee’s eventual emotional surrender stress victimhood without allowing much possibility for female empowerment. The film requires hard-bitten men – in particular, Jones’s own dissolute George Briggs – to disentangle oppressed females from difficulty.
Shake off those worries, and you are left with a hugely enjoyable, often funny, elegiac western (all westerns are elegiac these days). When the party eventually reach the "civilised" east – and meet up with Meryl Streep in a throwaway cameo – the society seems safe, settled and ordered. But it also seems dry and lifeless. The modern midwest, with its blank suburban streets, is already beginning to form itself, and men like George Briggs must face up to their eventual banishment to the reliquary. We've seen this fading hero before. But no man is better equipped to invigorate the archetype than Tommy Lee Jones.
Though there was much enthusiasm for The Homesman, it might not have enough intellectual weight to convince Campion's jury. Mr Turner and Winter Sleep probably still have the edge.
Away from the main competition, sidebars, special screenings and market events oozed across La Croisette. Salma Hayek, producer of The Prophet, an animated take on Kahlil Gibran's cult book, turned up to display a sign supporting the kidnapped Nigerian girls. An anthology piece, the film features an episode directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon. Saturday also saw the Irish Film Board reception at a beachside location.
The Un Certain Regard strand, the "official alternative" selection, featured an impressively unusual feature from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. White God begins as a standard girl-and-her-dog feature before, a full two-thirds of the way through, turning properly strange when the canine population of Budapest takes over the city. Only heels failed to be charmed when one of the doggy stars, dressed in a dickie bow, took to the stage before the film began.
For many, the highlight of the weekend was a film from the official selection playing out of competition. Gabe Polsky's brilliant documentary, Red Army, told us things we never knew we wanted to know about the golden era of Soviet ice hockey in the 1970s and 1980s. Viacheslav Fetisov, once a brilliant defenceman, appeared to scowl and growl charismatically at the audience in the Soixantième Theatre. He was a little bit more frightening than the dog but, in his gruff way, every bit as charming. I hope he takes that the right way.