At the 51st Cannes festival, the films were what they always are--only different.

It’s a Cannes debate as traditional as the procession of stars ascending red-carpeted steps each evening: How does this year’s festival compare with last year’s, with that of 10 years ago, with the golden year of 19__, when (insert film here) wowed the crowd/scandalized the audience/announced the arrival of a new genius? The ritual response is, Not as good/consistent/(insert adjective here). And, mon Dieu, there was plenty of comparison going on at the 51st annual Festival International du Film de Cannes, especially since so much pomp and celebrity was poured into last year’s half-century anniversary celebration. (And, honestly, what civilian has seen Shohei Imamura’s very nice 1997 Golden Palm prizewinner The Eel?)

But this reflexive perception that some other year was always better, some other film by director X, Y, or Z was always stronger, is not the point at all. Cannes is not about what’s best or what’s next. It’s not about the state of Cannes-Hollywood relations (although, jeez Louise, the absence of Bulworth and The Truman Show this year and the inclusion of Blues Brothers 2000 and Godzilla is Gallic-American drollery at its most mystifying). What Cannes is — what it’s always been — is the world’s most fascinating, idiosyncratic sampler of what’s on international filmmakers’ minds this year, in this moment, at this point in their careers as storytellers. Some are established. Some are new. Most will find a U.S. home for their work only in art-house theaters — if at all. For 12 days, though, they have our full attention. We parade from screening to screening (past street vendors hawking posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, past Europeans carrying little dogs so pampered they’re spared the chore of walking). We sit in the dark, open to suggestion. This year, this is what we learned:

— Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But the trendiest of them feature sexual turmoil as a plot device. Todd Solondz, the astonishingly assured son of the Garden State whose 1996 Welcome to the Dollhouse nailed the agony of suburban-girl adolescence with ferocious aplomb, advances his bitterly black, tragicomic point of view with Happiness, a disturbing portrait of an extended middle-class New Jersey family whose veneer of everydayness gets ripped away, exposing psychic carnage involving — among other activities — pedophilia, stalking, and graphic masturbation. And some of the most shocking activity is the content of conversation. I can’t recall a simple talk between a father (Dylan Baker, in a daring performance) and young son (newcomer Justin Elvin) ever being so upsetting; it’s only Solondz’s successful tonal tightrope walk (and passionate performances from a strong cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cynthia Stevenson) that keeps this riveting production from disintegrating into sensationalism. Look forward to a ratings fight and a flurry of op-ed chatter before this succès de scandale is released.