Cannes is the world’s greatest showcase for international cinema, but film-makers take a bold risk exposing their works to the festival’s critical hothouse

The film critic has been the subject of much discussion in the last 18 months, as newspapers and magazines all over the world opted to cut down on their film reviews and let go their critics. Studio-type blockbusters had become critic-proof. Audiences who went to see the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels or The Da Vinci Code paid no heed to warnings from highbrow reviews and were glad they hadn’t. The disconnect between the audiences for studio tentpole films and the film critic is complete.

There was never any question that the film would be divisive but its impact as an exercise in horror was diminished by the mob rule of the audience.

But at the Cannes film festival, the critics are out in force and for 12 days in May they assume a central role in steering the world’s opinion towards or against the latest selection of high auteur offerings showcased on the Croisette.

This year, I had been asked to preside over the Fipresci jury, three groups of three critics who would award a prize to a film in the Competition, Un Certain Regard and parallel sections (Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week) respectively. Along with NT Binh and Janusz Wroblewski, I was charged with seeing the 20 films in Competition and after several meetings throughout the event, we opted to award the prize to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon for the best film in Competition. Winner of Un Certain Regard was Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and the parallel section was Cherien Dabis for Amreeka.

The experience was a fascinating one. It was the first time in 16 years of going to Cannes that I had managed to see every single one of the films in Competition, particularly time-consuming since 12 of the films ran to two hours and four to over 150 minutes. It also opened my eyes to some of the foibles of the Cannes critics mob and some of the dangers of exposing your film in this environment.

For the Competition selection, there are two key press screenings a day: one in the grand Salle Lumiere at 8.30am, and one in the Salle Debussy at 7pm or 7.30pm which is exclusively for press.

It is this last screening venue which is the most ruthless. Critics who have attended Cannes for decades take their seats in the auditorium, many arriving early to nab the same places every evening. Most are seasoned folk who know their way round Cannes and have deep knowledge of world cinema. There is a camaraderie in the critical corp: they giggle and jeer and applaud and boo as films come and go throughout the week.

There is also much chitchat and comparing of opinion after the screenings and a follow-the-herd mentality appears to sway many who are nervous of taking a stand or would prefer to represent the general viewpoint. While most critics are firm believers in their own opinion, some just don’t want to look foolish by standing behind the wrong film.

Watching Lars von Trier’s Antichrist at the 7.30pm screening was an example of the critical mob out for blood. Always a controversial figure, Trier has as many detractors as fans and Antichrist was not going to win over any converts. Catcalls and hoots of laughter met many scenes from the film.

A talking fox was greeted with derision and the violence inflicted on both lead characters produced veritable waves of consternation throughout the Debussy. For all that, not many people walked out and there was applause at the end to combat the boos.There was never any question that the film would be divisive but its impact as an exercise in horror was diminished by the mob rule of the audience.

This is an ageing group of writers, a high percentage of whom went on to dismiss out of hand visceral journeys into darkness and discomfort such as Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay or Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void.

Images in these bold cinematic works were just too unpleasant for many of the older critics whose tastes remain rigidly old-fashioned and geared towards intellectual film-making from classic names such as Alain Resnais or Ken Loach.

Often the films that Cannes critics sneer at find a warmer appreciation from critics in local territories, many of whom don’t attend the festival. Mendoza’s 2008 competition entry Serbis was derided at Cannes but warmly received on release.

A final note on the Cannes critical mass. By festival end, they are a tired, grumpy bunch with little patience. Gaspar Noé’s challenging Enter The Void suffered from critics’ fatigue on Friday, especially since it is still unfinished and way too long at 163 minutes. But that is the way of Cannes. After 10 days watching three or four films per day, the exhausted critics can only give thumbs up or thumbs down and nothing in between.