CANNES, France — A week into the Cannes Film Festival, the machine-gun-carrying soldiers vanished. For the first stretch of this event, a cluster of soldiers had been patrolling the main shopping drag that runs parallel to the promenade overlooking the Mediterranean, just one part of the show of force this year. France remains in a state of emergency, but festivalgoers exist in a bubble, and, in time, talk about heavy security gave way to other concerns, like whether Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” would win the Palme d’Or, and if Sean Penn’s “The Last Face” was worse than Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” or Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World.”
Mr. Penn may be the unfortunate winner of this dubious contest, to judge from the insistent jeers that greeted “The Last Face” at its Friday morning press screening. Booing — lustily, rightly, wrongly — is a Cannes tradition. Michelangelo Antonioni’s art film landmark “L’Avventura” was famously heckled, as was Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which went on to win the Palme. Mr. Penn is unlikely to receive any awards here; it’s doubtful that he will even receive many (any) good reviews for “The Last Face,” which centers on two relief-aid doctors (Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem) who fall in love in 2003 amid the genocidal horrors of Sierra Leone and Liberia.
As grindingly sincere as it is wildly misbegotten, this is a melodramatic miasma of white tears falling amid unspeakable black suffering. Yet what’s perplexing about it isn’t that it was produced — terrible scripts are greenlit all the time — but that the festival programmers gave this movie one of the 21 prestigious slots in the feature competition. “The Last Face” would have been negatively received, no matter what section it appeared in. Yet the programmers invariably made Mr. Penn a bigger target than he might have been by putting his movie in competition instead of screening it out of competition, alongside the starry titles that play at Cannes only to feed its red carpet.
It’s similarly mystifying how Mr. Refn and Mr. Dolan made it into competition, except as would-be representatives of a younger auteurist guard. The parade of beautiful, bloodied women in Mr. Refn’s flashy dud — about a young model (Elle Fanning), newly arrived in Los Angeles — suggests that he fell under the spell of both Helmut Newton and David Lynch at an impressionable age, but without learning anything, including how to move beyond shocks or how to animate his visuals. Mr. Dolan, in his family drama, seems to be trying for the operatic excesses that sometimes work for Pedro Almodóvar, with a touch of John Cassavetes thrown in.
It’s been a strange Cannes, with both streets and theaters quieter and less populated than usual. Deal-making was apparently slow, though plenty of movies will make their way into theaters or onto video on demand. Others, like “The Death of Louis XIV,” a mesmerizing elegy from the Spanish director Albert Serra, will doubtless continue to find their most receptive audiences on the festival circuit. Set in the king’s bedchambers in Versailles and anchored by a poignant performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud, the movie focuses on the king’s slow, excruciating death from gangrene. Despite this forbidding premise, the filmmaking and Mr. Léaud hold you, turning the king into a figure of pathos even as it’s also clear the rot eating away at this royal body reflects the disease that, decades later, will be excised by the guillotine. Mr. Léaud said a few words before the movie, receiving a standing ovation.
This welcoming applause was an emotional acknowledgment of Mr. Léaud’s stature, starting, of course, with “The 400 Blows,” which inaugurated his working relationship with François Truffaut. Elsewhere at the festival, though, ovations can be as cheap and unreliable a marker of quality as the jeers. Olivier Assayas’s competition entry, “Personal Shopper,” starring an exceptional Kristen Stewart, was unfairly booed at its first press screening. Ms. Stewart, who appeared in Mr. Assayas’s earlier film “Clouds of Sils Maria” (at Cannes in 2014), plays a young American working in Paris who’s trying to contact her dead twin, even as she juggles a living malign force.
“Personal Shopper” primarily comes across as a lovingly appointed platform for Ms. Stewart’s talents and beauty. Mr. Assayas places her in wide-ranging situations — the movie embraces a range of genres, from a paranormal thriller to a glossy action movie to a coming-of-age tale — and dresses her in a variety of costumes, from haute couture fetish to cool-girl schlub wear. It’s a reminder that the history of cinema is also a history of male directors working with superb actresses, a truism borne out in “Aquarius,” from the Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho. Sonia Braga (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) stars as a widow and retired music critic whose fight with some developers (they want to evict her) evolves into a stirring look at the intersection of class, history and memory.