CANNES, France — On Wednesday afternoon, the 83-year-old rock star Jean-Luc Godard shook up the Cannes Film Festival with his latest, a 70-minute 3-D extravaganza, “Goodbye to Language.” Finally, the competition lineup had something it has desperately needed all week: a thrilling cinematic experience that nearly levitated the packed 2,300-seat Lumière theater here, turning just another screening into a real happening. You could feel the electric charge — the collective effervescence — that can come when individuals transform into a group. “Godard forever!” a voice boomed out to laughter and applause, as the congregated viewers waited for their brains to light up with the screen.
“Goodbye to Language” is, like much of the director’s work, deeply, excitingly challenging. The thickly layered movie offers up generous, easy pleasures with jolts of visual beauty, bursts of humor, swells of song and many shots of a dog, Roxy, but it will provide other satisfactions with repeat viewings. Divided into alternating sections (nature and metaphor), the movie is a churn of sights and sounds that opens with nods to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a discussion of Hitler and the words “usine à gaz” (French for “gas plant,” as well as an idiom for something overly complicated). A man flips through a book on the artist Nicolas de Staël; someone else blurts out, “I am here to tell you no”; Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner smolder in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Mr. Godard circulates some of these images and words repeatedly while dropping in others only once as he returns again to the idea of cinema as metaphor. Before long, “Goodbye to Language” — which could be titled “Goodbye to Cinema” — settles on Roxy, as well as on a man and a woman the dog goes to live with. The man evacuates his bowels in a bathroom; Roxy relieves himself in the great and glorious outdoors. A woman sits behind bars, an image that’s repeated and makes a sharp contrast with the scenes of Roxy’s rambling. Someone says (I’m paraphrasing) that a dog is never naked because it is always naked, a thought that, in turn, can lead to a Jacques Derrida observation: “The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.”
Mr. Godard did not come to Cannes, so the news conference for “Goodbye to Language” was canceled. Instead, he sent a “filmed letter” to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s main personages, that was posted online. This letter looks and plays like an addendum to “Goodbye to Language” and features Mr. Godard’s raspy, near-whisper voice-over and an image of him in grizzled close-up. There are surges of music, like Handel’s “Sarabande,” and clips from the 1946 noir “The Chase,” as well as from his own films “Alphaville” and “King Lear.” There’s a shot of his old comrade in cinema, François Truffaut, and snippets of Mr. Godard reciting from Hannah Arendt’s “On the Nature of Totalitarianism.” This filmed letter also feels like a goodbye.
Until Mr. Godard blew the roof off the Lumière, the official selection had registered over all as, well, fine: polite, a bit staid, a touch moribund. Little at the festival, particularly in the main competition, has sought to dig under the skin, except with the old ultra-violence, or to challenge our sense of the world and of cinema. There have been some very good movies, like Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” a true-crime story of wrestling, ambition and madness. It stars Steve Carell, hidden behind dead eyes and a Jimmy Durante schnoz, as the heir John E. du Pont, who in the 1990s became entangled with the Olympians Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, ponderously beautiful, part sculpture, part slab) and his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo, unassuming and affecting).
You will hear a lot about “Foxcatcher” the rest of the year because it is already being positioned as an Oscar contender. (Get ready, too, for the predictable critical ebb and flow as acclaim for the movie here is met by reviewer derision and then reclamation.) You will also hear about Hilary Swank’s performance in another main competition entry, “The Homesman,” a western directed by her co-star, Tommy Lee Jones. As an unmarried frontierswoman who helps bring three women to Iowa from Nebraska — they’ve been driven mad by life, death and men — Ms. Swank reminds you that her greatness as an actor is her gift for unforced sincerity. She brings a depth of feeling to the movie, which goes astray when its focus shifts from her character to Mr. Jones’s.
“The Homesman” will probably look better when it’s away from the festival heat. There’s no such hope for “Lost River,” the first feature directed by Ryan Gosling, a pastiche that borrows heavily from the work of Nicolas Winding Refn (who directed Mr. Gosling in “Drive”), for a story about innocents in a nightmarish world of burning houses, cretinous bullies and spurious cool. Slotted into the sidebar series Un Certain Regard, the movie shouldn’t have been in the official lineup, where it became an easy target. It’s hard not to think that it and some other titles here — and the actors on the juries — were selected for the photo ops they provide. And, yes, Mr. Gosling and his star, Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), looked good on the red carpet, as did the voice cast from another selection: “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
Another unhappy choice here is “The Search,” a new take on a 1948 Fred Zinnemann film about an American soldier (Montgomery Clift) in Europe who, in the aftermath of World War II, helps reunite a child and mother. The director for this version is Michel Hazanavicius, who charmed Cannes in 2011 with “The Artist” and here paves a road to hell with good intentions, miscasting, reductive politics and dreadful writing. His wife, Bérénice Bejo, in the Clift role, plays a human-rights activist working for the United Nations, who, during the 1999 Chechen war, meets a lost little boy, Hadji (the newcomer Abdul-khalim Mamatsuevi, giving the movie’s sole good performance). Ms. Bejo never convinces, while Annette Bening induces cringes as a patronizing American aid worker.
Far more politically and aesthetically successful is another competition selection, “Two Days, One Night,” from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The Dardennes have won the Palme d’Or twice, for “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant,” and every film they bring to Cannes comes freighted with that history and those expectations. “Two Days, One Night” has much to recommend it, including an expressive, exact sense of time and place and the way the Dardennes transform politics — in this case, the struggle for worker solidarity in hard economic times — into an urgent narrative. At the same time, the casting of a star like the fine Marion Cotillard, as a worker who has to fight to keep her job, is a distraction that remains, despite the beauty of the Dardennes’ direction and their ideals.
The festival is often criticized for its allegiance to established auteurs, a loyalty that leads to sighs of familiarity and worse, especially when it comes to work like “Still the Water,” the latest from another Cannes regular, Naomi Kawase, which opens with a man slitting a goat’s neck. I left after an hour of empty landscapes, talk and the sight of a second goat having its neck slit. How this ended up in competition instead of, say, “Bird People,” from Pascale Ferran, may have to do with the unofficial calculus that affects festivals everywhere and involves everything from issues of balance (how many movies are chosen from each country, for example) to pressures exerted by powerful industry forces. The main competition selections also tend to be more serious and self-serious.
“Bird People” is neither; it’s delightful, and delightfully eccentric. Tucked into Un Certain Regard, it stars Josh Charles as Gary, an American businessman who, soon after arriving in a Paris airport hotel, exits his job and marriage. It is very satisfying, after years of watching Mr. Charles on “The Good Wife,” to see him take possession of a new character, especially one whose motivations are as much a mystery to the character as to you. For an hour, you discover a man finding himself, incremental layer by layer, expression by expression. And then the focus shifts to a hotel worker, Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), who undergoes a more radical transformation when she turns (or doesn’t) into a sparrow. The image of her soaring to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a blast of pure cinema.