Europeans lead the pack in race for Cannes' top honour

European directors are many, Asians are few and South Americans non-existent on the list of 19 films in the running for the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival, announced on Thursday.

Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Denmark's Lars Von Trier and Belgium's Dardenne brothers are among those whose latest projects will be in the limelight when the world's premier film festival opens on May 11 on the French Riviera.

No fewer than 1,715 films - some for the first time submitted via the Internet - were considered for the 64th edition of the event, festival director Thierry Fremaux told a press conference in Paris.

Nineteen more films made the grade for the parallel Un Certain Regard section of the festival, which is unspooling Woody Allen's latest comedy "Midnight in Paris" as its opening night crowd-pleaser.

"We have a special thought for Japan this year, but also for Tunisia and Egypt," festival president Gilles Jacob said, adding without elaboration that Egypt would be honoured as a "special guest" at this year's festival.

Fourteen of the films in competition come from European directors, allowing for Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan to be counted as European.

This year's pick of the cinematic crop represents both established filmmakers and young directors showing at Cannes for the first time, Fremaux told reporters.

All of the films being shown, in and out of competition, represent "geographical, generational and stylistic diversity," he added, although there was surprise at the dearth of Latin American films.

Outside competition, and likely to stir controversy, will be "The Conquest" by director Xavier Durringer, the first film ever to be shown at Cannes about a serving French president.

Despite reports in the French news media, Fremaux said, there was "no pressure to show or not to show" the retelling of the rise to power of Nicolas Sarkozy, who is gunning for re-election next year.

Perhaps the best-known Spanish director of his generation, Almodovar - who has won best director at Cannese but never the top honour - will present "La Piel Que Habito" (The Skin I Live In) with Antonio Banderas starring.

Based on the French crime novel "Mygale" by Thierry Jonquet, the tale of revenge centres on a plastic surgeon who tracks down the man who raped his daughter and the complex relationship that ensues.

"I am very pleased with the results of 'The Skin I Live In' and I'm highly curious to see the reaction to it at the festival," the Oscar-winning director said through his film production company El Deseo in Madrid.

"Besides, Cannes is always a stimulus to go on a diet," he added.

Von Trier, a Palme d'Or winner in 2000 with "Dancer in the Dark," returns with "Melancholia," billed as "a beautiful movie about the end of the world," starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland.

Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne will meanwhile be hoping for their third Palme d'Or - after "Rosetta" in 1999 and "L'Enfant" in 2005 - with "Le Gamin au Velo" (Boy with a Bike).

Among non-Europeans in competition, US director Terrence Malick will present "The Tree of Life" starring Hollywood A-listers Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and Israeli director Joseph Cedar will unspool "Hearat Shulayim" (Footnote).

From Japan will be "Ishimei" (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) by horror-loving director Takashi Miike, and "Hanezu no Tsuki" by Naomi Kawase, winner of the Camera d'Or and Grand Prix honours at previous Cannes festivals.

The sole contestant from Britain is Scottish director Lynne Ramsay and her adaptation of the best-selling novel by Lionel Shriver, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" starring Tilda Swinton as the mother of a high-school mass murderer.

From Down Under, Julia Leigh's erotically charged "Sleeping Beauty" is one of two first-time films in competition, the other being "Michael" by Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer.

An expert in making art films on the cheap, Turkish director Ceylan will be presenting "Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da" (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), about a doctor living on the Anatolian steppe.

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