Evaluating Cannes' wealth of films is an exhilarating - and exhausting - experience for critics. Long may it continue, says Derek Malcolm.

Time was when you could walk down the Croisette at Cannes, spy a famous director sipping his coffee and sit down and chat without interference. Now you have to make an appointment through his publicists, you will probably find several others in your short slot and they may not be asking the sort of questions you want answered.

No, the festival is not what it was. But that is its triumph rather than its failure. Because it is rightly regarded as the best and most powerfully influential festival in the world, its commercialisation was inevitable. And critics nostalgic for the more relaxed old days just have to accept the fact.

They also have to accept there are more films to see and more hacks trying desperately to get into them, some with passes that will make the task difficult. However keen you are, there will be good movies you miss and you will spend half the year trying to catch up with them at other film jamborees around the world.

Over the past 60 years Cannes has championed many directors, some of them at the beginning of their careers. One is Emir Kusturica, who was virtually unknown before When Father Was Away On Business won the Palme d'Or in 1985. Another is Jane Campion whose short films and first feature were shown at the festival - the prelude to winning a Palme d'Or with The Piano in 1993.

And it should be remembered that Ken Loach's Riff Raff was shown and celebrated at Cannes at a time when the British director was having grave difficulty obtaining a showing for it in the UK. It was his first feature film for over a decade and since then he has been prolific.

Not all film-makers have been so pleased to present their films at Cannes. Krzysztof Kieslowski, the great Polish director, won prizes there but never a Palme d'Or, while Mike Leigh, having won with Secrets And Lies, was mortified to have his Vera Drake rejected and sent it to Venice instead, where it won the Golden Lion.

But on the whole a great many film-makers, from the Taviani and Dardennes brothers to the controversial Gaspar Noe and Quentin Tarantino, have cause to be grateful.

'Cannes is a natural harbour where a film has to berth.'
For critics, Cannes can exhaust you some time before its end. Woe betide the film-maker who has his competition entry on the last couple of days. It needs to be that much better than averagely good to hold the attention of some very tired eyes.

I do not subscribe to the view that this is the fault of the festival - that it should be smaller and more purist. Critics can ignore the bits we do not like, though with editors screaming for gossip as much as reviews, it is getting more difficult. We should be so lucky that, despite all the hoopla, Cannes is still largely predicated on displaying the best films that can be found from all over the world.

We should cheerfully accept that sometimes even art sells well and that Cannes often makes a profound difference for film-makers who might otherwise have much less chance to have their moment in the spotlight.

Cannes has changed dramatically in 60 years, and not always for the better. It has surmounted some blows that would have put paid to a lesser event. World War Two, which broke out the day after the first edition in 1939, might have finished it for good. Financial problems in 1948 meant the festival had to be cancelled. And in 1968, the student revolt, supported by activist directors, caused it to be halted halfway through.

But still it ploughed on, sometimes through political and social turmoil, with its international juries being booed or applauded by the critics for their decisions, such as choosing Michael Moore's Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 as the Palme d'Or in 2004.

And still it remains, in the eyes of most of us, the festival of festivals. As Federico Fellini said in 1987: 'Cannes is a natural harbour where a film has to berth.' It still is, and will remain so for a long time yet.