Mike Leigh and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Cannes competition titles offer bleak portraits of the human condition that will both polarise audiences and provoke debate. Where else would such ambitious world cinema find a home but at Cannes.

The Cannes Film Festival always throws up films which provoke violently opposing reactions from critics and audiences. It happened with Dancer In The Dark in 2000, and with Irreversible in 2002. Some people love, some people loathe.

It happened again this week at Cannes with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest Biutiful. A 138-minute opus made with the film-maker’s characteristic intensity and brilliance, it is nevertheless one of the bleakest portraits of human misery imaginable. So relentless is the voyage towards death of its lead character, played by Javier Bardem; that I personally found it hard to stomach. It felt like misery porn and the longer it went on, the less I believed it.

The buyer I was sitting next to, however, was in floods of tears for much of the last half hour. Once out of the screening, I discovered that it divided people along those lines. Some thought it marvellous and devastating, others couldn’t abide it.

Despite the fact that I was in the latter camp, I was nevertheless glad that it was in competition at Cannes.

This after all is what Cannes is about: creating discussion and debate about cinema, provoking strong reactions and passionate arguments about the latest works from great auteurs.

Many thought Mike Leigh’s Another Year, like Biutiful, was unremittingly depressing. And yes, it was a return to the thoughtful, bleak humanist ensemble movies for which he is famed after his self-proclaimed adventure in “anti-miserablist” cinema with Happy-Go-Lucky. But, unlike Biutiful, the film shone through with compassion for the characters and insight into human need.

Talk to another critic and they will take the opposite view. Cannes is abuzz for 12 days with talk of “the Leigh” or “the Inarritu”, and everyone on the Croisette has an opinion or is hungry to co-opt someone else’s.

Of course, outside Cannes, these two movies will be a tough sell (although Sony Pictures Classics closed a North American deal for Another Year on Tuesday). The theatrical audience for drama about a terminally ill Spanish man or lonely single people in suburban London is probably rather small.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the Cannes line-up this year was short on big movie stars and photo opps. Consumer media were scrabbling for stories throughout the week and many turned to the market, filching Screen’s exclusives – like the news that Naomi Watts would play Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde or that Jean-Luc Godard had written the English subtitles for his own movie.

But in the final analysis, it was very much a back-to-basics festival – where, Robin Hood and Wall Street 2 aside, the focus was squarely on the ambitious world cinema in official selection. Powerful films about the human impact of war and colonialism, films about poetry and the nature of art, stories of a housemaid forced to abort her baby or an aging swimming pool attendant who betrays his own son.

It’s invigorating to see these films every day in packed houses in Cannes and alarming to think that the audience and media interest for them – at least in some major territories – is waning.

But then there’s always France. The fact that ARP paid a reported $2.8m for a Spanish-language downer like Biutiful shows that the appetite is still there in the Cannes Film Festival’s host nation. Long may it remain.