Don't be fooled. The word "festival" doesn't mean that anything goes. Cannes has always been governed by protocol – as any man can tell you who's turned up for an evening gala in tux and dicky bow, only to be turned away for wearing the wrong shoes. And these days, the festival has a touch of the iron fist about it. Last year, after making his "I'm a Nazi" wisecracks, Lars von Trier found the festival declaring him persona non grata – which surely carries a certain prestige, a sort of auteur Asbo.
Even before the start of this year's event, more knuckles have been rapped. Last month, a French blogger posted what was allegedly a leaked advance list of Cannes competition titles. It turned out to be an April Fool prank (although it did predict six titles correctly). Festival director Thierry Frémaux was having none of it, and responded with fighting talk. "It's disgusting to play with such a thing," he declared to the industry website Deadline. "There is a code of conduct for Cannes and it must be respected. Those who don't respect the code will never come back to Cannes." That last sentence, tweeters observed, was surely a tagline waiting for a movie.
And yet the festival's sure hand has faltered in the last decade, with several dud selections and soul-destroying opening films. (Did we really sit through The Da Vinci Code?) And there was a time when the festival proper could easily be eclipsed, in media eyes, by the opportunistic sideshows going on elsewhere on the Croisette – when the biggest story in town would be a Spice Girls photo-op or a rumoured glimpse of Michael Jackson in a beachfront traffic jam.
These days, however, Cannes can justly pride itself on being the festival among festivals – and on its own terms. It's in a fairly unassailable position. Look at its European A-list rivals. Berlin, when it's on form, lives up to its high-minded reputation, but its tawdry red-carpet glitz looks increasingly absurd, given the often prosaic content. And Venice may provide stars and, in recent years, a strong selection of admirable films – but it doesn't offer the sheer concentration of major attractions that Cannes does.
In fact, this year's Croisette menu is so mouth-watering that, even if the films prove disappointing, the festival will already have triumphed on prestige alone. The competition is stacked with blue-chip auteurs. (Although, as has been widely noted, they're all male this year.) There's Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, along with several significant art-house names consolidating their renown – Italy's Matteo Garrone (who made the Mafia drama Gomorrah), the Precious director Lee Daniels, and Romania's Cristian Mungiu, who was largely unknown when he scooped the Palme d'Or in 2007 with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
The only drawback of such an all-star competition is that you miss out on surprises and revelations – like 4 Weeks ..., in fact. It also makes it that much harder to leave the Palais and head further afield, to discover new names in the Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week sections.
This year, too, the paparazzi will be thrilled by a very snap-worthy contingent of stars. Expect to see Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Marion Cotillard, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Isabelle Huppert, Brad Pitt, Reece Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart. There's even a youngish British face making his acting debut – rocker Pete Doherty, whose publicists must be even now working on getting him a persona non grata certificate to add to his collection.
Which brings us to the double bind of Cannes. One is expected to behave well there, as befits this lofty celebration of the Seventh Art. Yet Cannes' pre-eminence on the world cinema map is partly contingent on its ability to provide the sort of sulphurous controversy that attends the utterances of Lars von Trier and his ilk. A tame, scandal-free Cannes would be a disaster – but looking at this year's form, that seems a distant prospect ....Reuse content