You can never predict what's going to set people talking in Cannes – for all anyone knows, Madagascar 3 could prove the most argued-over film in town. More probably, that will be David Cronenberg's latest, widely agreed to be this year's hot ticket. An adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis, it features Robert Pattinson as a billionaire prodigy crossing Manhattan by stretch limo and encountering Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti and, if I saw the lightning-speed trailer correctly, a giant papier mâché rat. If Cronenberg captures the intensity of DeLillo's state-of-the-West delirium, this could be his most confrontational film since his J G Ballard adaptation Crash. Then there's the Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export), who always ruffles feathers with his frank depictions of Western excesses. Paradise: Love will, one suspects, be no exception: it's about a teenage girl attending a weight-loss camp while her mother visits Kenya as a sex tourist.
France's Jacques Audiard confirmed his maestro status with the 2009 prison drama A Prophet, and Rust and Bone promises to be as abrasive as the title: Marion Cotillard plays a woman who loses her legs in an orca attack. One name who enjoys godlike status in the Cannes pantheon is Austria's Michael Haneke: three years after his Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon, Amour has Isabelle Huppert as a woman dealing with parental illness. If you're hoping for light relief, you may have to grab it on opening night, from Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, about two runaway kids with Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Bruce Willis. Perhaps longest awaited is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road with Brazil's Walter Salles directing and Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen as the Beat-era outsiders.
Some film-makers are ringing the changes. Abbas Kiarostami is now an international director rather than an Iranian one, and after visiting Italy with his Certified Copy, he heads to Japan with Like Someone in Love. Michel Gondry, who came a cropper with his hyper-mainstream The Green Hornet, goes back to basics with The We and the I, about a group of African-American teenagers on a bus. Also leaving his comfort zone is Nick Cave, who's already proved himself a screenwriter with The Proposition, and reunites with the director John Hillcoat on Lawless, a drama about bootleggers starring Tom Hardy. And Pete Doherty turns to acting in Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle – which doesn't translate, alas, as "Confessions of a Bike Boy", but as "... of a Child of the Century". The 19th century, to be exact, this being an adaptation of Alfred de Musset's 1830s novel of love and ennui.
Leos Carax is the semi-legendary wild boy of French cinema, barely heard of since his last feature, Pola X, had us all poleaxed back in 1999. He returns with Holy Motors in which Denis Lavant plays a man living multiple lives. With a cast including Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, this could be sublime or catastrophic, but will certainly be out on a limb. The grandees returning are Bernardo Bertolucci, with the out-of-competition brother-sister drama Me and You; 89-year-old Alain Resnais, the innovator behind Last Year in Marienbad, with You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet (a mischievous title for what's likely to be his farewell film); and Philip Kaufman, once Hollywood's go-to director for literate drama (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), whose biopic Hemingway and Gellhorn stars Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman as literary war reporters Ernest and Martha.
The most politically direct, and timely, film in competition is from Egypt's Yousry Nasrallah: After the Battle is his account of last year's uprising against Mubarak. From Chile, comes No, from Pablo Larrain, the maker of nightmare political drama Post Mortem: it stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an adman trying to bring down Pinochet. And a much-liked documentary fresh from Sundance is Room 237, about Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shining – and the people obsessed with it. Finally, there's a film in competition from Sergei Loznitsa, whose Cannes debut, the underrated My Joy, was like a Russian Deliverance with a dash of David Lynch. His follow-up In the Fog is a war-time drama – and my personal tip for the outsider to back.
This year's competition brings several US films with a genre feel, from significant directors now poised for A-list status. The Precious director Lee Daniels offers The Paperboy starring Matt McConaughey, Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman.
McConaughey is also a fugitive in Mud; the director is Jeff Nichols, whose Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter revealed a major new talent. Then there's Andrew Dominik, who made the underrated neo-Western The Assassination of Jesse James; his Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini in a mob drama. Also poised for limelight is Ben Wheatley, whose cult successes Down Terrace and Kill List proved that he's the most outré talent to emerge in British cinema for some time. Sightseers is another hot ticket: the story of two very unhappy campers, it sounds like a black comic spin on Mike Leigh's Nuts in May.