Cannes confidential: a preview of the Palme d'Or contenders

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The Independent Culture

Nostalgia aside, Cannes has always been a horrible bun-fight. But, in between tripping over poodles, taking out a second mortgage to buy a sandwich on the Croisette and scrabbling for a few minutes in the lacklustre company of a hungover star, it looks like the 2006 festival could be an interesting year for films.

The director Wong Kar-Wai is jury president, but his presence does not reflect the flavour of the programme. Asian films are conspicuous by their virtual absence from all four main sections. And the competition - dominated last year by intimate father-son stories - has a strikingly gritty, political tenor to it.

The festival opens next Wednesday with an adaptation of Dan Brown's conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code, and a movie less needful of Cannes hype is hard to imagine. But the rest of the official selection looks more intriguing. It's a canny combination of familiar names and new talent, with plenty of meaty themes to chew on.

Nanni Moretti's The Caiman is a satirical attack on Silvio Berlusconi. Out of competition, An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on global warming, features the former US vice-president Al Gore. Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation gives the American junk food industry a clobbering, while Bruno Dumont's Flandres contemplates the horrors of Iraq, and Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes looks at the shabby treatment meted out to North African soldiers who fought for the Allies during the Second World War.

The Argentine film Cronica de una Fuga - a late addition, by Israel Adrian Caetano - tells of a footballer kidnapped by the government during the military junta of the Seventies. And Ken Loach, a Cannes regular, is back with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring Cillian Murphy as one of two brothers embroiled in the fight for Irish independence in the 1920s.

The other British entry is Cannes' dark horse candidate, a debut feature by Andrea Arnold, whose excellent, nervy drama Wasp won the Oscar for best short film last year. Red Road stars Nathalie Press, from My Summer of Love, as a CCTV operator who confronts a traumatic memory from her past.

There are no fewer than three female directors out of the 20 in competition - a good showing by Cannes' usual standards (in 2005 there was none at all). The others are France's Nicole Garcia, with Selon Charlie, and Sofia Coppola, with her keenly anticipated Marie-Antoinette. Drawing on Antonia Fraser's biography, it stars Kirsten Dunst as the doomed queen.

Latin America is well represented. Alongside Cronica de una Fuga, the Mexican film El Laberinto del Fauno, by Guillermo del Toro, is in contention; another film, Babel, is billed as a US production but is directed by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams). Southern Europe, too, gets more than a nod, with two films from Italy (The Caiman and Paolo Sorrentino's L'Amico di Famiglia), one from Spain (Pedro Almodovar's Volver) and one from Portugal (Pedro Costa's Juventude em Marcha). Finland's Aki Kaurismaki, with Laitakaupungin Valot, and Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with Iklimler, take the entries further afield.

Along with The Da Vinci Code, the Hollywood blockbuster is represented by X Men: The Last Stand. But the rest of the American films should be funkier fare. Apart from Coppola and Linklater's entries, there are two indie musicals: Southland Tales, a sci-fi comedy-thriller by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, and, out of competition, Shortbus (rumoured to be dripping with sex), by John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Other US indies include a second film by Linklater, an adaptation of Philip K Dick's paranoid thriller A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves, presented in the Un Certain Regard section.

Will there be scandal? We devoutly hope so. The French can always be relied on in this department and the outspoken actor Vincent Cassel may well prove to be a provocative master of ceremonies. As to films, the Directors' Fortnight boasts two choice candidates. We Shouldn't Exist is the porn actor Hervé P Gustave's autobiographical account of his attempts to cross over to the mainstream, where his credits include Romance and Baise-Moi. Jean-Claude Brisseau's Exterminating Angels chronicles a sensational real-life court case faced last year by the French director, who was taken to court on charges of sexual harassment by four actresses. Brisseau defended his artistic integrity; feminists saw it as a classically sordid casting couch story.

Further likely suspects for attention are a raft of adult-themed animated features, including Princess, a manga-style story of child pornography from Lars von Trier's Zentropa Entertainments, and Free Jimmy, the tale of a drugs-crazed circus elephant that purports to feature the first ever CGI-generated graphic sex scene. Meanwhile, body horror is represented, in the Un Certain Regard section, by Taxidermia, from Hungary's Gyorgy Palfi. Critics who caught the film in Sundance or Budapest describe it as a gory black comedy that would make David Cronenberg blanch.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from 17 to 28 May (