And Cannes created woman

Never mind the ageing producers and the genius auteurs - the film festival nonpareil belongs to the actresses who stalk the Croisette in the hope of celebrity and fortune. Here, our man on the red carpet, Jonathan Romney, retells the history of Cannes through its starlets - and, overleaf, a trailer of Cannes 2007's celluloid highlights
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The Independent Culture

Cannes: trivial, starstruck, glamour-fixated? Perish the thought. Yes, it's true that the Festival has a reputation as the most lavish long-running photo opportunity in the media calendar, an event that in its febrile glitziness makes Oscar night look like the Nobel Peace Prize cocktails. Look at most of the souvenir coffee-table albums that came out to celebrate Cannes' 50th anniversary in 1997, and you'd think that 99 per cent of the festivities was about starlets hanging on moguls' arms, off balconies or colliding revealingly with Robert Mitchum on the beach (that actress was Simone Silva: she died in 1957 but lives forever as a Cannes Trivial Pursuit question).

However high-minded the Festival gets, however much the auteurs think they own the joint, Cannes doesn't belong to the earnest old men in tuxes, or even to the hip young guys exposing their silk suits to Mediterranean salt water. The Festival's preoccupations have always been fetishistically female, as witness this year's poster for the Un Certain Regard section: a cartoon femme fatale flashing a booted thigh. This penchant for cheesecake and the glimmer of a strategically-placed Chopard diamond is just something that serious actresses have had to resign themselves to. But it's an indisputable fact that however weighty an actress's performance or persona, the right choice of frock and the right intensity of smile on the Palais steps can make all the difference to making a film a media event, or a star an icon.

Clearly, this doesn't just apply to highly packaged glamour bombs such as Sharon Stone, Monica Bellucci or Diane Kruger, who came to Cannes as Helen of Troy in the derided 2004 epic Troy and returns as this year's closing night mistress-of-ceremonies. It applies also to the Dadaist anti-chic of Björk's candy-stripe suit when she came with the 2000 Palme d'Or winner Dancer in the Dark. Even the highbrow likes of Tilda Swinton benefit from the catwalk element: jury duty in 2004 helped boost her reputation as a left-field fashion icon. This year her role in what may be the competition's severest film, Bela Tarr's The Man From London, will surely occasion appropriate red-carpet grandeur, cementing her status as a fully-fledged Cannes grande dame. For it's the grandes dames that really make the Cannes legend: those award-winning, or just plaudit-winning, women who belong more to le cinéma than to da movies, whose undying reputation is made in the right serious film in the right not-so-serious town. Here are some of the art-house heroines who have made Cannes' history, and whose history Cannes has made...

SOPHIA LOREN & CLAUDIA CARDINALE

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Italy basically owned Cannes. Sophia Loren hit town as the hot new starlet of 1954; 12 years later, she was heading the jury. Loren won the keys to the city in 1961, when she scooped the Best Actress award in Vittorio de Sica's Two Women, a film that caused critic Jean Paulhan to rave, "She can scream like no-one else." But her crown was seriously challenged that same year by ingénue Claudia Cardinale; she had two films in Cannes in '61, La Viaccia and the recently rediscovered Girl With a Suitcase. Cardinale was possibly that year's most photographed star, dispensing sweet smiles from under a perky hat on the Croisette. But her apotheosis came in in 1963, in Visconti's masterpiece The Leopard, which provided a classic Cannes photo opportunity, posing on the beach with Burt Lancaster and a leopard. She was back in 1982, teamed with wild man Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo. She may have felt safer with the leopard.

VANESSA REDGRAVE

Diana Dors made a notable impression when she arrived with the fictionalised Ruth Ellis drama Yield to the Night in 1956, but the Sixties truly were the decade d'or for les anglaises in Cannes. The biggest splash was made by Vanessa Redgrave, who won the Best Actress award twice, in 1966 (Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment) and 1969 (Isadora); she also starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's Swinging London-set 1967 Palme d'Or winner Blow-Up. And let's not forget Samantha Eggar, Best Actress in 1965 in The Collector. But the ball was set rolling in 1962 by a debut performance that reminded the world that Britain too had its own young New Wave: Rita Tushingham, who shared an acting prize with her co-star in A Taste of Honey, Murray Melvin. The elfin face of kitchen-sink drama, Tush' returned to Cannes in 1965 in Richard Lester's The Knack..., a film which also gave a young British novice (playing an uncredited water skier) a chance to make a splash with some swimwear photo ops: take a bow, grande-dame-to-be Charlotte Rampling.

ISABELLE ADJANI

You might think that, among French cine-divas, Cannes indisputably belongs to Bardot or the ever-regal Deneuve. Oh, they've supped their share of Croisette champagne, but the classiest Cannes showing is surely Isabelle Adjani's, right. Adjani unnerved Cannes in 1976, co-starring with Roman Polanski in the director's peerlessly creepy The Tenant. Then, in 1981, she won Best Actress for two films: James Ivory's decorously erotic Quartet and Andrzej Zulawski's extravagantly nutty Possession (tag-line: "She created a monster as her secret lover!") which had her tussling with an octopus-like Thing from the Id. Her quasi-role status was sanctified in 1994's La Reine Margot, the goriest costume drama ever to play in competition. These days, the elusive Adjani rarely appears on screen, but continues to be a favourite with the French press. She headed the Cannes competition Jury in 1997.

MONICA VITTI

Sixties art-house goddess Monica Vitti had the most enigmatic face in European cinema, and starred in one of the decade's most enigmatic films. Vitti was the muse of Michelangelo Antonioni, and the star of his epoch-making L'Avventura. The film was booed when it played in competition in 1960, baffling viewers with its longueurs and refusal to deliver a straightforward narrative; within a year, however, critics had agreed on L'Avventura's radical brilliance, and Vitti was established as Sixties cinema's queen of existential cool. She and Antonioni were back in competition two years later with L'Eclisse, and in 1966, she donned guns and catsuits in Joseph Losey's spoofy Modesty Blaise. A Cannes juror in '68 and '74, Vitti also returned as a director with her own Scandalo Secreto (1990).

GONG LI

Torrid melodrama, beautifully photographed billowing red fabrics, and the most sublimely troubled expression in cinema - Zhang Yimou's 1990 film Ju Dou made Gong Li the first global screen icon to emerge from China. She continued to wow Cannes in films such as Zhang's Shanghai Triad, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Wong Kar-Wai's futuristic 2046 - as well as on billboards along the Croisette, as one of the celebrity faces of the L'Oréal ads. Oh, she's worth it all right - even though her primacy has recently been challenged by kittenish kick-fighting Zhang Ziyi. Gong Li is currently starring in Zhang Yimou's epic Curse of the Golden Flower, but her recent Hollywood roles - as a mobstress in Miami Vice, and playing Japanese in Memoirs of a Geisha and Hannibal Rising - are hardly what becomes a legend most.

PENELOPE CRUZ

Pe, as Spanish fans know her, is a bit of an anomaly. Cannes didn't create her so much as revive her - and how. She was already a big star in Spain, before an uneasy transition to Hollywood, stepping out with a certain diminutive near-namesake of hers. Her appearance in 2005's closing night film Chromophobia was a low: Cruz screeching in Cockney-inflected English at Rhys Ifans was not the stuff of legend. Then along came Pedro Almódovar with some bottom-padding, and Cruz was up there with the greats. Last year's Volver saw her sharing the Best Actress prize with the rest of the female ensemble cast. Cruz's crackling lead performance as a hyper-chic mother in peril revived memories of other indomitably glamorous movie matriarchs, from Joan Crawford to Anna Magnani.

NASTASSJA KINSKI

Daughter of legendary wild man Klaus, Nastassja K was the sort of anti-star that Cannes adores: a truly cosmopolitan figure, of exotically obscure origin (actually, plain old Berlin), Kinski was the art-house bombshell of the Eighties, with a louche, feral but oddly fragile persona. Launched by Roman Polanski's Tess in 1979, Kinski had a rough time on the Croisette in 1983, starring in The Moon in the Gutter, by the then-modish Jean-Jacques Beineix. The Moon was savaged, but what the hell, nothing gets publicity in Cannes like chic directors when they crash and burn. Kinski had her revenge the following year, when Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas - without a doubt her own finest hour - won the Palme d'Or. And the maternity evening dress she wore to the screening was also an unexpected hit.

...And this year?

Sure to be sapping the flash bulbs this year is mega-vamp Asia Argento, the Nastassja Kinski de nos jours. After bring her distinctive grubby sassiness to Marie Antoinette last year, she'll be making sure this is her biggest Cannes year yet, with no less than three films. As well as featuring in the latest by Abel Ferrara and Olivier Assayas, she'll be going up the Palais steps for Catherine Breillat's sure-fire controversy An Old Mistress, as a 19th-century femme fatale. Although not in competition, Britain's own mercurial Samantha Morton also has three on show, including a role as Marilyn Monroe in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, so she'll no doubt be giving the cameras some boop-boop-be-doo.

But the Cannes paparazzi love ingénues above all, so they'll go wild for laidback crooneuse Norah Jones, making her screen debut in Wong Kar-Wai's road romance My Blueberry Nights. As it's this year's opening film, the limelight is hers for the taking, although there are concerns that Norah the Snorer might only add to the sometimes soporific qualities of Mr Wong's cinema.

Cannes 2007? No one knows anything...

Every year, when the Cannes line-up is announced, pundits will raise their eyebrows and tell you there are no surprises. But, as with everything related to film, no one knows anything. The fact is, there will always be surprises in Cannes, but they only emerge when you actually sit down and watch the films. For example, the predicted masterpiece from the grand red-carpet auteur turns out to be a dud - as does the outside contender from the hotly-tipped novice. Or conversely, the film that sets the Festival alight comes from some no-budget outsider in a sidebar section, from a country no one ever knew had a film industry; or from some wheezy veteran everyone wrote off decades ago, but who proves to have a last puff in him after all.

So the following guesswork about this year's 60th Festival is guesswork and no more. And sometimes it's safest to hedge your bets. So I'll only say of much-anticipated opening film My Blueberry Nights, by Hong Kong hipster maestro Wong Kar-Wai, that it sounds either mouth-watering or downright ominous, depending how you feel about the combination of US-set road romance, Jude Law and songbird Norah Jones. Overall, this year's competition is heavy on Americana. The Coen brothers make what could be a storming comeback with Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country For Old Men. There's David Fincher's real-life detective thriller Zodiac, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, and a time-will-tell contender in We Own The Night, James Gray's mob thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Local favourite Quentin Tarantino is back too, with Death Proof, an extended version of his tranche of the now sliced-down-the-middle Grindhouse double-bill: expect cars, girls and talk, talk, talk. The other heavyweight American in competition throws a curveball by making his film in French: Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the true story of paralysed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Closely watched as a left-field entry will be Persepolis, one of the rare animations that occasionally play in competition: Marjane Satrapi co-directs her own graphic novel about growing up in Iran. There's a return for dual Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica, whose films are becoming something of a chore: Promise Me This may be the usual farrago of people with bad teeth throwing geese at each other, but he might surprise us yet. Established but as yet unglittery names Fatih Akin (Germany), Ulrich Seidl (Austria) and Andrey Zvagintsev will be doing their best to impress us, and smart money is on them succeeding.

But I suspect the hottest tickets will be these: 1. Catherine Breillat, the French specialist in graphic and intensely philosophical sex dramas, offers her first costume effort, An Old Mistress, based on a 19th-century novel. Will it be perfectly decorous, or can we expect the usual gardening implements concealed under the petticoats? 2. Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas introduced the metaphysical blow-job to competition with 2005's Battle In Heaven: this year, Silent Light deals with the misdemeanors of a Mennonite. 3. The one that the hardcore art-house mob will be queuing round the block for: Hungarian genius Bela Tarr (the Tarkovsky de nos jours, but way, way gloomier) offers The Man From London, an existential mystery based on a Georges Simenon novel, and starring Tilda Swinton.

Also programmed out of competition are new films by Michael Moore, Michael Winterbottom and Steven Soderbergh, while the various sidebars are sufficiently crammed to suggest that critics had better keep a cool head and a tight schedule. In the Un Certain Regard selection, wild card Harmony Korine offers Mister Lonely, about a Michael Jackson lookalike in love, while opening Directors' Fortnight is Control, in which photographer turned director Anton Corbijn documents the life and death of the Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

In the same section, a hot tip is Savage Grace, the first feature in 15 years by early-Nineties name-to-watch Tom Kalin (Swoon), with Julianne Moore at the centre of a real-life murder case. And the Fortnight also boasts what's likely to be the jaw-dropper of the festival, fresh from Sundance: Robinson Devor's documentary Zoo, about men who love horses. That is, really love horses. My Friend Flicka, I think we can safely predict, it won't be.

The Cannes Film Festival, Wed to 27 May, www.festival-cannes.fr

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