CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival opened 12 days ago with the crowd-pleasing Disney animation "Up", but a string of critical duds toward the close means its ending has been decidedly downbeat.
The 20 films in the main competition have been variously booed, cheered, jeered and shunned as Cannes' notoriously picky audiences failed to agree on one, or even a handful of entries, worthy of the coveted Palme d'Or.
"It's been very uneven," said Jay Weissberg of trade publication Variety ahead of the closing ceremony on Sunday.
"There was a lot of expectation because of the names called out, but very few people would say the directors here have contributed their best works."
Underlining the lack of consensus, others are more positive.
"Overall a very good selection as far as the whole of the festival is concerned and a very, very good level as far as the competition is concerned," said Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of Cahiers du Cinema, the bible of highbrow French film criticism.
The race for best picture is wide open, although French prison drama "A Prophet" directed by Jacques Audiard would be a universally popular winner.
New Zealand's Jane Campion, who won the Golden Palm in 1993 with "The Piano", is another favorite with her biopic of Romantic poet John Keats and his lover Fanny Brawne in "Bright Star", as is Spain's Pedro Almodovar and his "Broken Embraces" starring Penelope Cruz.
Austrian Michael Haneke was lauded for his thought-provoking "The White Ribbon", Italian entry "Vincere" about Mussolini's secret marriage was broadly popular and Ken Loach, winner in 2006, won cheers with his upbeat and touching "Looking for Eric" featuring soccer star Eric Cantona.
Two more French pictures -- the whimsical "Wild Grass" by Alain Resnais and "In the Beginning" by Xavier Giannoli -- are seen as outside bets.
Even "Antichrist", Lars von Trier's movie featuring scenes of graphic sex and genital self-mutilation, is a contender despite offending and angering many who watched it.
Some of the biggest critical duds of 2009 were by Asian directors, including Filipino Brillante Mendoza's grisly murder story "Kinatay" and China's Lou Ye, who made "Spring Fever" in defiance of a five-year official ban by state authorities.
Two stories set in Tokyo -- "Enter the Void" by Gaspar Noe and "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo" by Isabel Coixet -- flopped, and Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" also scored poorly.
Quentin Tarantino's eagerly anticipated World War Two caper "Inglourious Basterds" featuring Brad Pitt sharply divided audiences, although its ability to attract some of Hollywood's biggest stars to the red carpet was welcome news for the media.
A-listers were conspicuous by their absence along the palm-lined Croisette this year, both because of the films selected and studios spending less during the economic slowdown.
Pitt was joined by partner Angelina Jolie at the world premiere of Tarantino's film, and they both attended the launch party. But there was noticeably less of the late-night revelry for which Cannes is renowned than in recent years.
Additional reporting by Wilfrid Exbrayat; editing by Myra MacDonald