Cannes: May in the Midi promises plenty of fun – so cue mayhem, murder...and Mia

Cannes – beaches, bouillabaisse and bonhomie?

Well, yes, up to a point – but then we critics have to pay for the sunshine by gazing deep into the fathomless abyss of auteurs' imaginations. This year, delegate general Thierry Frémaux has promised a lighter touch: "This will be a Cannes where we can have fun."

Sure enough, among themes guaranteed to fill hearts with levity and joy, we have high-school massacres, child abductions, the end of the world and the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy. Still, light-hearted or not, 2011 looks like one of the most appetising years in recent Cannes history.

The major statements: Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, could be the director's grand Meaning-of-it-All testament. But he'll have stern competition from Lars von Trier, whose new film is about a wedding that happens as the Earth faces its end. The title is Melancholia, but for some of us, the combination of Apocalypse and Kirsten Dunst is the very definition of a good time.

The comeback: Scottish prodigy Lynne Ramsay returns with We Need to Talk About Kevin, her first feature since 2002's Morvern Callar. Adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel, it stars Tilda Swinton as the mother of a boy who carries out a Columbine-style massacre. One of the films most likely to send viewers out ashen-faced ... but in a good way.

Newcomers and unknown quantities: Watch competition entrants Julia Leigh and Markus Schleinzer. She's an Australian novelist making her directing debut under Jane Campion's patronage, with Sleeping Beauty, about a young woman turned prostitute, with a speciality in snoozing: the trailer suggests something sleek and perverse. Meanwhile – Ashen Face Alert No 2 – Michael Haneke associate Schleinzer offers Michael, about the abduction of a 10-year-old boy, inspired by the Natascha Kampusch case.

The national scandal: While Carla Bruni-Sarkozy appears in Woody Allen's opening film Midnight in Paris, French eyes will be on her husband, as seen in The Conquest, a biopic detailing Mr Sarkozy's career and the travails of his last marriage. The star is Denis Podalydès, renowned for his gallery of pompous buffoons. So far, Monsieur le Président has commented of the casting ("This is not fair – he has less hair than me") but he may yet find more to complain about.

Most likely to misbehave: Disgraced Mel Gibson, hoping to rehabilitate himself with Jodie Foster's new feature in which he plays, ahem, a man in meltdown. He might just succeed – if he can resist contributing to the flood of innuendo that's already greeted the film's title, The Beaver.

Kings and queens of the red carpet: No doubt Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz will cut an appropriately swashbuckling dash for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean episode, while the reunion of old compadres Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodovar (for the latter's The Skin I Live In) will cheer cinephile hearts. Also likely to soak up the attention on the Palais steps is US ingénue Mia Wasikowska (from The Kids Are All Right) whose lead in Gus Van Sant's oddball romance Restless could catapult her into the big time. And expect a warm local welcome for much-loved French veteran Michel Piccoli, especially if he turns up in character on the red carpet – he's playing the Pope in Nanni Moretti's comedy Habemus Papam.

But seriously, the hottest tip: This Must Be the Place is the first English-language offering from Paolo Sorrentino, Italian director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. It stars Sean Penn as a goth rock star turned Nazi hunter, and if the film is even half as entertaining as Penn's new Cure-style hairdo, it'll be quite something.

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