Rivalry on the Riviera

The big names are back, but this year's Cannes film festival should still spring a surprise or two. Sheila Johnston reports

It could be the best of times in Cannes this year, or it could be the worst of times; as ever, the bets are wide open.

In 2001, the reins of the festival finally passed from Gilles Jacob to Thierry Fremaux. Many of Fremaux' decisions have been bold and successful. He brought back animation with Shrek. Last year Fahrenheit 9/11, the dazzling Korean drama Old Boy and Thailand's enigmatic Tropical Malady won major prizes.

This year's line-up looks conservative. The competition is stuffed with former Cannes laureates: Wim Wenders (who won for Paris, Texas in 1984), the Dardennes brothers (Rosetta, 1999), Lars von Trier (Dancer In The Dark, 2000) and Gus van Sant (Elephant, 2003). David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are also in contention.

"If, last year, we seemed to concentrate more on new discoveries, the return to the competition of some of the greatest film-makers delights us to just the same extent," said Fremaux at the press launch.

Von Trier's Manderlay tackles slavery in the Deep South and should at least have American delegates seething with indignation in a year otherwise regrettably short on "hot-button" movies. It also trails the rumour that a donkey was slaughtered live on camera, which reportedly prompted the actor John C Reilly to quit the production.

Like Paris Texas, Wenders' Who's That Knocking is a road movie co-written by Sam Shepard, who also stars as a burned out actor who returns to his Nevada hometown and meets up with two children he fathered by different women over two decades ago. In Jarmusch'sBroken Flowers, a bachelor (Bill Murray) sets out in search of the grown-up son he has never known. Fremaux has said "paternity" is one of the key themes of the festival.

Van Sant's Last Days is loosely based on the final hours of Kurt Cobain, played in the film by Michael Pitt. According to Fremaux, it is "even further removed [than Elephant] from Hollywood and its narrative codes".

Still, the true surprises are likely to be found elsewhere. The actor Tommy Lee Jones is the only first-time director competing for the Golden Palm, with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which was produced by Luc Besson and written by Guillermo Arriaga, who previously scripted Amores Perros and 21 Grams. The opening film, Lemming, starring the two Charlottes, Gainsbourg and Rampling, is directed by Dominik Moll.

In the sidebar sections. Battle In The Sky comes from Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and Marco Tullio Giordana has Once You're Born, a coming of age story. Another promising candidate is Hiner Saleem's Kilometre Zero, about a young Iraqi Kurd conscripted into the army during the Iraq-Iran war. And there is Roberto Rodriguez's graphic novel adaptation Sin City and Election, a Hong Kong martial arts thriller with the Asian superstar Tony Leung.

Emir Kusturica - twice a Golden Palm winner - leads a jury which includes the directors John Woo, Agnes Varda, Benôit Jacquot and Fatih Akin, the actors Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek and Nandita Das and the writer Toni Morrison.

No self-respecting European festival is complete these days without the world premiere of a new work by Woody Allen. Cannes has his London film Match Point, starring Scarlett Johansson and Emily Mortimer. In the Directors' Fortnight, the cult Norwegian director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) offers an adaptation of Charles Bukowski's Factotum, with Matt Dillon as the low-life writer. There's also a special screening of Joyeux Noel, a French film about the three-day truce at Christmas, 1914, in the no man's land of the Western Front.

The Un Certain Regard section, whose jury is headed by Alexander Payne, has nine first films. It includes The King, in which Gael García Bernal plays a young man in search of his father. Francois Ozon offersTime To Leave, about a photographer who learns he has only months to live, as does Fatih Akin (the Golden Bear winner in Berlin last year for Against the Wall) with a documentary, Crossing the Bridge, about Istanbul's music scene.

The British presence is, once again, meagre. Still, there are three UK entries in the shorts competition and the closing film on 21 May is Martha Fiennes' Chromophobia, starring brother Ralph, Ben Chaplin, Penélope Cruz, Ian Holm, Rhys Ifans, Damian Lewis and Kristin Scott Thomas.

The acclaimed documentary-maker Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi's Sisters in Law traces the struggle of abused women in Cameroon to take control of their lives. An abridged version of Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares, a three-part documentary on "the politics of fear" broadcast on BBC2 last year, receives a screening. Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, set in a British seaside town, competes in the Critics' Week.

But enough of the auteurs and the weighty themes - what of the hype, the gossip, the stars? George's Lucas's Star Wars Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith premieres, and DreamWorks' animation division is planning a "classic, high-flying stunt" to push Aardman Animation's keenly anticipated Wallace and Gromit - The Curse of the Wererabbit.

As for the classic, high-flying scandals, none have been officially announced at the time of going to press. But watch this space.