CANNES, France — Sometime after the entree had been served at the opening-night dinner on Wednesday at the 56th Cannes Film Festival, after Harvey Weinstein had pumped half the hands in the room, and Wes Anderson, Bill Murray and Bruce Willis had entered to applause following the premiere of their film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” the pink lights were dimmed, and the waiters began weaving among the tables, carrying large, heavy blocks of illuminated ice. With their tiny interior lights glowing and embedded plastic cups holding haute cuisine soft-serve, it looked as if a fleet of toy U.F.O.’s were landing — or a deconstructed igloo. At Cannes, even dessert is a show.
“These are what we call art films,” Mr. Murray had said about Cannes several hours earlier at the news conference for “Moonrise Kingdom,” as the roomful of journalists knowingly cooed and laughed. Mr. Anderson, at Cannes for the first time, was seated dead center at an elevated table — the cast member Jason Schwartzman squeezed in at one end, with his colleagues Mr. Willis and Edward Norton knocking elbows toward the other — but the love soon gravitated to Mr. Murray. “I really don’t get any other work but through Wes,” he said, as if to explain his long working relationship with Mr. Anderson. The room laughed again.
And then Mr. Murray did what savvy celebrities sometimes do when they’re playing the game of up close and personal. He flattered the flatterers: “How did you people like the movie?”
We liked it just fine, some much more than others. A love story about two 12-year-old runaways, set in 1965, the film is one of Mr. Anderson’s supreme achievements: It’s wondrously beautiful, often droll and at times hauntingly melancholic. While the critics, reporters and programmers who packed into its first press screening on Wednesday morning didn’t respond with thunderous applause, neither were there any of the dreaded Cannes boos. The French seemed somewhat cool toward “Moonrise Kingdom.” Perhaps its scripted subtleties had been lost in translation, although the Cahiers du Cinéma critic gave it three of three stars in one poll. The Americans, many of whom will weigh in when it opens in the United States next Friday, seemed generally pleased.
For much of the world, Cannes is the red carpet and all it signifies: celebrities, privilege, rarefied beauty, an aura of old-fashioned Hollywood and, somewhat more vaguely, the movies themselves. By the time Mr. Anderson’s large troupe had assembled on the red carpet leading to the 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière, the patina of glamour that the festival does so well and that makes it the envy of so many other events, had been applied with a trowel. Marilyn Monroe was blowing out a birthday candle on the official poster, and blowups of other dead movie stars were adorning the festival walls. Somewhere in the Lumière, newer stars like Diane Kruger, a member of the main feature competition jury, settled into their plush seats to watch the other show: the film.
Mr. Anderson is one of three Americans in the 22-title feature competition, along with Lee Daniels, who’s here with “The Paperboy” (Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman), and Jeff Nichols, who’s here with “Mud” (also starring the busy Mr. McConaughey). The competition is thick with the usual established European auteurs, like the 2009 Palme d’Or winner, Michael Haneke, who won the prize for “The White Ribbon”and is back with “Love,” about an octogenarian couple. Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director who wowed many here with “Certified Copy” in 2010, which was set in Tuscany and starred Juliette Binoche, has returned with “Like Someone in Love,” filmed in Tokyo and in Japanese. One insider said that it was Mr. Kiarostami’s “time” for a Palme.
If Mr. Kiarostami, one of the most revered directors working today, does win this year, he will join a long list of Palme luminaries whose importance to, and impact on, cinema has little to do with the box office. The festival’s prejudice toward — or, more generously, its loyalty to — favorite auteurs has been routinely held against its programmers, as if filmmakers and their works should only be McMeasured by the millions and billions served. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” from the Thai directorApichatpong Weerasethakul, for example, which was the surprise winner of the 2010 Palme, probably isn’t a title familiar to many moviegoers, especially Americans. The movie grossed just a squeak over $180,000 when it was released in the United States in 2011.
To which a movie lover can only say, too bad and so what? The influence of filmmakers like Mr. Weerasethakul, whose short documentary “Mekong Hotel” is playing out of competition here, can be manifested in outright imitation, in certain kinds of shots or camera moves. More often, though, it’s a question of how the movie organizes time and space and wreaks havoc with, or conforms to, narrative norms. Mr. Haneke has spawned, and not always with happy results, an assortment of cinematic manqués whose work is characterized by chilly intellectualism and heavy moral themes, with little of his art. The Belgian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who is presiding over two juries at this year’s festival, has, with his brother, Luc Dardenne, become one of the most influential filmmakers in the past decade.
Certainly there’s something Dardenne-like about some images in “Rust and Bone,” the latest from Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), and its theme of moral awakening. The film, tentatively scheduled to be released in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics near the end of the year, has an impossible-sounding story. She (Marion Cotillard) trains killer whales at a ghastly French sea entertainment center throbbing with Eurodisco. He (a very good Matthias Schoenaerts) is a former boxer with big muscles, a small son and no prospects. Early on, a cataclysmic accident leaves her without legs and in a wheelchair, and at least for a while I wondered how the special-effects wizards digitally removed Ms. Cotillard’s pretty stems. Once I let that go, the movie worked me over, then won me over.
The first few days of Cannes tend to be relatively slow, as badges are secured, invitations procured, meetings arranged and the first selections sampled. The inaugural disappointment was “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Directed by Laurent Bouzereau and playing out of competition, this two-hour talkathon, padded with both personal and stock images, mostly involves Mr. Polanski answering softball questions from his longtime friend and frequent producer, Andrew Braunsberg, here working the Oprah sympathy beat. Outside of Mr. Polanski’s recollections and his open, often touching emotionalism when talking about his family’s desperate times in Poland during World War II, the movie offers little that hasn’t been covered in Marina Zenovich’s documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” The same banner headlines are revisited, the same questions sidestepped.
Formally messier if more emotionally persuasive is the fine Egyptian drama “After the Battle,” in competition from the director Yousry Nasrallah. Set in the aftermath of the recent revolution and hinged on a woman of privilege, Reem (Menna Shalabi), who riskily crosses the class divide and tries to stir up revolutionary feeling in a destitute family, the movie is effectively a political argument come to dramatic life, with the characters embodying divergent views and degrees of commitment and despair.
“What is to be done?” someone asks, repeating Lenin’s famous question. The final scene of an impoverished, newly awakened Egyptian scaling one of the pyramids, his body straining with effort and the sounds of his breath weakening, has a blunt, unarguable power.