With the Cannes Film Festival opening this Wednesday, film buffs are hoping that the selection will be high on cinephile pleasures – since it seems unusually low on both star power and scandal.
The opening film is Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, which will bring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett to the red carpet, while Oliver Stone later hits town with his long-awaited Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which Michael Douglas reprises his 1980s role as satanic financier Gordon Gekko. But otherwise, the competition will be dominated by a line-up of respected auteur names, plus the odd unknown – which will keep critics happy but frustrate the paparazzi.
Last year's festival was widely held to be one of the best in years, unveiling such acclaimed titles as Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon, Inglourious Basterds, British discovery Fish Tank and French crime hit A Prophet. There was also a classic Cannes provocation in Lars von Trier's flamboyantly nightmarish Antichrist, hailed and attacked in equal measure as the most disturbing film to hit the Croisette in years.
At first sight, this year's selection seems muted, but Cannes has so established its lead over rival festivals Berlin (worthy and drab) and Venice (glamorous but patchy) that it can afford not to go all out on crowd-pleasers. Besides, this year's list has its share of unmissables. Among them is Another Year, the latest from Mike Leigh – who was a Cannes fixture until the festival ill-advisedly passed up his Vera Drake in 2004. That film went on to win Venice's top prize, the Golden Lion, while his follow-up Happy-Go-Lucky premiered in Berlin. The director's Cannes homecoming features a hardcore of familiar Leigh players including Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton, and promises a return to the director's darker mode.
Leigh's film leads a small but significant UK contingent, including Stephen Frears's out-of-competition Tamara Drewe, based on the Posy Simmonds graphic novel and starring Gemma Arterton as a rural temptress. Other UK acting talent to spot will be An Education's Carey Mulligan, co-starring in the Wall Street sequel, and Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson in Chatroom, a UK-made film by Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata. Playwright Jez Butterworth, of Jerusalem and Mojo fame, also turns up as screenwriter on the sole Hollywood competition entry, Doug Liman's espionage drama Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. And it's a good year for British women directors, with documentaries by Sophie Fiennes and Lucy Walker, and a fiction debut, All Good Children, by hotly tipped newcomer Alicia Duffy.
Among the auteur names in competition are Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose Biutiful stars Javier Bardem; the Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano, returning to the yakuza gangster genre in Outrage; and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami, whose Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche. Hardcore cinephiles will be queuing for the comeback by French New Wave guru Jean-Luc Godard, whose film Socialisme – with a cast including Patti Smith – has already been an internet cult hit in the form of a speeded-up mini-version.
If any scandals rock the festival this year, they are most likely to be French, and related to politics rather than sex. Carlos, a five-hour television drama by Olivier Assayas, is a biopic of the Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal. The film caused a stir earlier this year when its subject, in prison since 1997, attempted to sue the production company on the grounds that the work could violate his "biographical image".
Then there's Hors-la-Loi, Rachid Bouchareb's follow-up to his controversial Days of Glory. Bouchareb's new film focuses on the struggle for Algerian independence, and it is expected to stir up local reaction on the Côte d'Azur, a stronghold of the French right. Politics apart, however, there may be little shock value in Cannes this year – although We Are What We Are, a Mexican film about a family of cannibals, seems the title most likely to put sensitive critics off their bouillabaisse.