The dark and dreary collides with diamonds and pearls at Cannes

In Fernando Meirelles' allegory "Blindness," obtuse officialdom rounds up, quarantines and essentially abandons stricken citizens to their puke-filled fate, all to the good of the general populace. The authorities later use guns to keep these alien others at bay.

In another film In Competition at the Festival de Cannes, Walter Salles' "Linha de passe," one protagonist holds a terrified motorist at gunpoint. But rather than shoot or rob him, he simply demands that his fellow Sao Paulian look at him, see him and recognize their common humanity.

And then there's Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra," a gritty, Pasolini-like indictment of Italy's Mafia-ridden underbelly in which an entire township is infested with or colludes with the thuggery of the Camorra. Resistance is met with a bullet; the police are invisible.

These are just three of the relentlessly bleak films in Cannes that focus on the fragility if not the breakdown of society. And as Meirelles pointed out here, such themes are not far-fetched at a time when there are food riots around the world as well as a mounting series of catastrophes — from the Asian tsunami and Katrina to Myanmar and China.

But talk about disconnects. You come from one of those screenings and you're caught up in the parade of party-hopping, black-tied executives and their bedazzled dates scurrying along the Croisette, a coup de champagne thrust at you every 30 minutes. (If you're here, it's well-nigh impossible not to be swept up in this tide.) Making matters more surreal, there is quiet insistence at the high-toned exclusive affairs that you pledge money to China's earthquake victims.

"It's the alternate universe that is Cannes," one longtime festivalgoer says with a shrug. "The movies are increasingly bleak, the glitz increasingly at odds with the artistry on display."

Well, not completely at odds. There were the Americans to the rescue.

Whatever the cavils of the jaded press, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Kung Fu Panda" provided an entertaining jolt midway through the 12-day movie marathon. There was a crush of fans, and no, the French have not improved their handling of the ticket lines in 60 years.

Beyond these unabashedly commercial crowd-pleasers, there were our very own version of auteurish cineastes on hand: Clint Eastwood with the unsettling "Changeling," Woody Allen with the scintillating "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and James Gray with the relationship drama "Two Lovers."

Whatever their faults, here we had consummately directed, story-driven filmmaking with stars attached — three ingredients that by and large no other national film industry seems to have pulled off, at least not as far as anyone could see up and down the Riviera. (Angelina Jolie is convincingly touching in "Changeling," Rebecca Hall as Vicky is a fresh discovery, and Joaquin Phoenix delivers a tour de force performance for Gray.)

European exceptions to the overall disappointing array of movies here were, to my mind, Arnaud Desplechin's dysfunctional family drama "A Christmas Tale" in the main Competition and "Of Time and the City," Terence Davies' moving documentary homage to a lost Liverpool, in Un Certain Regard.

As Gray argued here, the storytelling impulse in America has been thwarted by the big-business imperatives of the conglomerates that own the Hollywood studios. And clearly, 14-year-old "Grand Theft Auto"-addicted males — the demo that determines boxoffice performance stateside — are not likely to flock to such films.

But if you look hard enough around Cannes — and you do have to look hard — there are enough examples to suggest that Gray might have overstated the case.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.