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Faites vos jeux for the Palme

Who'll take the prizes at Cannes this year? Loach, Von Trier, the Coen brothers?

Pity the poor Dutch. They haven't had a film in the main competition at Cannes since the mid-Seventies. "Maybe Gilles Jacob (the festival director) doesn't like our drug policy," suggests one disgruntled Netherlands' producer.

This year, it's not just the Dutch grumbling. The Italians aren't at all happy either that none of their movies are in contention for the Palme d'Or. The situation is only marginally more rosy for the Brits, whose sole competition entry is Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, a film about the Justice for Janitors campaign in LA.

One way or another, though, Brits will play a prominent part. Dave Stewart is in town with Honest, his directorial début starring most of All Saints. "As soon as [the critics] see them act, they'll shut up... there's going to be a lot of jaws on the ground," he proclaims.

The festival opens with Vatel, a costume epic directed by Roland Joffe and co-starring the two Tims, Roth and Spall. The Merchant-Ivory team unveil their Henry James adaptation, The Golden Bowl (with Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston), which was made with French and US money, but features plenty of British-spun and British-woven hats and dresses.

There's a Hugh Hudson film, I Dreamed Of Africa, closing Un Certain Regard. Mark Herman's Purely Belter (about the travails of two lads trying to get hold of season tickets for Newcastle United) screens in Directors' Fortnight. Herman's ace? A small cameo from Alan Shearer. Simon Cellan Jones describes his Shepherds Bush-based psychodrama Some Voices as the antithesis of Notting Hill: "The camera was not allowed in W11," he declares sternly. Closing Director's Fortnight is Stephen Daldry's Dancer, starring Julie Walters.

Bjork (right) will be strutting her stuff in Lars Von Trier's epic Dancer in the Dark. (It's typical that the ever-perverse Von Trier, having encouraged the world to embrace the discipline of Dogme, sloped off and made an extravagant musical.) Julianne Moore fetishists and trainee dentists should enjoy Neil Jordan's version of Samuel Beckett's monologue Not I (receiving a special screening). The star of the short film is Moore's mouth, seen in huge close-up throughout.

What will be the crowd pleasers? O Brother Where Art Thou, a picaresque Depression-era yarn about three escapees from a Mississippi chain gang (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) is touted as the Coen brothers' answer to Preston Sturges's screwball classics. There is also a strong buzz around Neil La Bute's comedy-thriller Nurse Betty. La Bute eschews his usual queasy themes - voyeurism, sexual humiliation etc - to tell the story of a naive Kansas waitress (Renée Zellweger) who witnesses the killing of her husband, loses her grasp on reality and heads to LA in pursuit of the soap-opera doctor she adores.

Last year, the Palme d'Or went to the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta, which didn't screen until the final weekend and wasn't tipped by anybody. No one knows what this year's jury (including Kristin Scott-Thomas, Jeremy Irons and novelist Arundhati Roy) will be looking for. It's absurd to reduce the festival to a filmland Grand National. Still, that's what the critics invariably end up doing.

Von Trier has the form. Blackboards, the second feature from 20-year-old Iranian director Samira Makmalbaf, must have a chance of winning something. I saw a 10-minute section of this epic tale about teachers, smugglers and refugees in the mountains of Kurdistan, and it looked superb. And Liv Ullmann's The Faithless is another strong candidate... if only because it's written by Cannes favourite Ingmar Bergman.

The festival begins on 10 May