CANNES, France. The air is sweet, the food is fine, the company agreeable, but the movies so far… oy vey.

With one exception: Inspired by the true story of a Tijuana beauty queen who got mixed up with the local narco gangsters, Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala is a ferociously paced crime thriller, filled with atmospheric detail and exceedingly bleak humor. Here, even more than with his Godard homage youth film I'm Gonna Explode (the great discovery of the 2008 New York Film Festival), Naranjo demonstrates an impressively fluid camera, a feel for location, and a terrific rapport with actors. Stephanie Sigman, the natural beauty who innocently stumbles through the looking glass to find herself catapulted into a series of increasingly violent gangster transactions, as well as the televised Miss Bala pageant, exhibits tremendous poise in her first major role–one that requires her to be present in virtually every scene.

Miss Bala, shown as part of “Un Certain Regard,” is hardly the only movie at Cannes to be predicated on a woman's hellish predicament.

Perhaps trying to stir up some blog buzz (hey!), programmers scheduled press screenings of three (out of four) femme-directed Competition films in quick succession. The first, Sleeping Beauty, a debut feature by Australian novelist Julia Leigh, concerns a university student with pre-Raphaelite looks and a provocative passivity who picks up extra cash by working while unconscious (get it?). Rich elderly johns have their way with her (up to a point) as she lies tucked between silken sheets in a drug-induced slumber. Perhaps because the character of this barbiturate Barbarella was so tediously underwritten (while most of the North American press was in its own jet-lagged trance state), Sleeping Beauty seems to have sunk like a stone. The next morning's We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted by Lynne Ramsay from Lionel Shriver's epistolary novel and the movie to beat in the Competition's early going, provided a brutal wake-up call.

Most simply put, this hyper-crafted, feel-bad cine-ordeal attempts to trap the viewer inside the brain of a woman whose son has committed a Columbine-style high school massacre. In search of subjectivity, Ramsay has two strategies. The first is a surfeit of effects–achronological editing, aggressive sound design, red splatter oozing across the screen as ketchup, jam, or paint, but never blood. The second is Tilda Swinton's performance as a very withholding mommy: One of the world's most high-strung actresses is here tuned so tight that her wordless stare could shatter glass. Ezra Miller, by comparison, is almost sympathetic as her devil child–one's merely glad to have him off the screen while Swinton's character virtually begs to be burnt at the stake.

Most critics raced from this wildly overwrought Alain Resnais remake of The Bad Seed to its mirror image, Gus Van Sant's mawkishly New Age indie-rock Love Story, curiously titled Restless, and thus experiencing what Karina Longworth described yesterday as a “teenage death trip double bill.” Then it was on to the day's nadir: Single-named director Maïwenn's Polisse, a two-hour plus saga of Paris's Child Protection Unit. Seemingly modeled on Law and Order, this increasingly fantastic ensemble workplace drama escalated between two-fisted child rescues (“baby being shaken in Belleville, allons-y!”) and screaming perp interrogations, with additional human interest generated by the squad's equally clamorous personal problems.

The show business ambiance was heightened by the number of adorable “abused' child actors playing “abused,” and by the director herself, playing with a nerdy (but secretly passionate) photographer assigned to this improbably glamorous police unit. Maïwenn's near camp essay in what might be called la niti-griti réelle is a bigger and inadvertently funnier fantasy than The Fairy–the piece of slapstick whimsy that inexplicably opened the Directors' Fortnight–or even Nanni Moretti's competing Habemus Papum in which the Italian comic auteur plays official shrink to a panicky new pope (Michel Piccoli).

Apparently a major hit in Italy, Habemus Papum does have something to say about the role of institutional religion (at least in Western Europe). But does the movie's startlingly confessional ending really have to do with the future of the Catholic Church, or is it a statement of Moretti's self-recognized limitations as a filmmaker dealing with charged material? More to the point: Will the movies here improve? Let us pray.

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