Two years ago, Lars von Trier regaled Cannes with a droll little short in which he seemingly revealed his true feelings about the film festival. The eccentric Danish maestro played himself, sitting at a formal evening screening. Tired of the babbling oaf next to him, the tuxedo-ed von Trier calmly rose and hacked his neighbour to a gory death.
With this, von Trier caught something of the true Cannes spirit. We might associate the competition with glitter, glamour and cultural cachet, the revered Palme d'Or trophy denoting the eternal lofty glory of the "seventh art". But, in fact, over and over, film-makers have used the competition to put the wind up their evening-dressed audiences, sometimes in very brutal ways indeed.
Visitors to the 1992 festival will remember the appearance of a red warning sticker on tickets to a film by a first-time American director. Who, hardened audiences wondered, was this Quentin Tarantino, and what could make his thriller Reservoir Dogs so shocking? One sliced ear later, all was clear. Five years on and a rather more high-minded provocateur, Austria's Michael Haneke, was also honoured with the sticker for his Funny Games, a film that set out to inflict intense psychological torture on its audience.
It's unlikely there will be any such stickers this year – if only because visitors have become only too aware they should expect a few nasty frissons. There's nothing new about the Cannes shock factor: it goes back at least to 1973, when the festival hosted provocateurs Marco Ferreri (gross-out satire La Grande Bouffe) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (religio-lysergic freak-out The Holy Mountain). But these days, the shocks come a little stiffer. A hardened colleague of mine walked out of Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002) after the opening salvo of 13 blows to the head with a fire extinguisher – thereby missing considerably worse to follow.
This year, once again, Cannes promises a stiff tonic. Quentin Tarantino returns with his long-awaited, orthographically oddball war film Inglourious Basterds, heralded by a trailer garnished with blood spurts. Described by its maker as a "spaghetti Western with World War II iconography", the film stars Brad Pitt as the commander of a troop of US soldiers who go into German-occupied France on a quest for Nazi scalps. The cast also includes Michael Fassbender and Mike Myers, but the acting presence of Eli Roth – director of the grisly Hostel films – will sound alarm bells for the squeamish. Hogan's Heroes it won't be.
Mention guerrilla dentistry, tongue- slicing and the eating of live octopuses, and you immediately think of Korean extremist Park Chan Wook, whose Oldboy was the shock success of Cannes 2003. This year, Park returns with Thirst, about a priest turned vampire – expect it to be both lurid and loopy.
Lars von Trier, too, gets to grip with horror in Antichrist, in which Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg head into the woods and encounter dark forces, and some unruly crows. The controversial trailer has pitched it as a straight genre scarer, but knowing von Trier, expect a Nordic contemplation on the metaphysics of evil. Meanwhile, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon – a story about grim happenings in small-town Germany in 1914, reportedly contemplating the emergence of Nazism – will doubtless provide more sobering chills.
But the film that's really making many of us nervous is the return of Gaspar Noé, the ghoul prince of French cinema. With Enter the Void, it's more than likely that he'll attempt to up the ante on Irréversible. Touted as "a hallucinatory maelstrom", it involves a stripper's brother who reviews the violent circumstances of his death, from the afterlife. Laden with special effects and screeching neon colours, Noé has promised it will be more psychedelic than violent – but at two-and-a-half hours, it certainly won't be an easy ride.
One person who won't be fazed by any of this is jury president Isabelle Huppert. French cinema's cerebral goddess herself inclines to the darker side of cinema, and gave Cannes a rough ride as the lead in Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), a high-intensity medley of mutilation, sex and Schubert. Huppert surely won't let fellow jurors get away with favouring soft options – although given the team includes Hanif Kureishi and Eurovamp Asia Argento, they probably wouldn't anyway.
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Here's a round-up of what else will be fighting for attention this year...
The light relief
Although Cannes won't just be a 12-day gaze into the abyss, come the closing night we might be gasping for light relief. Jan Kounen's costume romance, the self-explanatory Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, might provide that – but given the form of previous Cannes closers, it may prove the biggest horror of all. Still, festivities should start briskly with opening-night film Up, the latest Pixar animation, which will see the world's massed critics donning 3D specs. Then there's the glamour-laced Broken Embraces from Pedro Almodóvar, a typically labyrinthine story set in the movie world, and starring Penélope Cruz – this time donning a blonde wig for the maestro. Meanwhile, over in the Directors' Fortnight section, expect raucous laughs from I Love You Phillip Morris, a knockabout farce which features Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as gay lovers.
After 2008's bumper British crop (Terence Davies, Steve McQueen, Duane Hopkins), this year is quieter on the UK front, although Bright Star, by New Zealander Jane Campion (see 'The Comebacks'), is a British production. Long-time Cannes campaigner Ken Loach is present and correct with Looking For Eric, about a British postman's encounter with Monsieur Cantona. Most closely watched Brit ticket, however, will be Fish Tank, a drama by Andrea Arnold, whose 2006 Red Road was one of the best UK debuts of recent years.
Past grandees of cinema have often checked into competition as a mere formality and grievously disappointed us; this year, thankfully, spares us Wim Wenders. However, the legends sometimes return in glory, and hopes run high this year for Jane Campion and Alain Resnais. Campion won a joint Palme d'Or in 1993 with The Piano, and after a rocky few years, Bright Star sees her back in period territory, with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as the doomed literary lovers John Keats and Fanny Brawne. As for French master Resnais, his recent films have tended to the flyweight, but still, we're talking about the maker of innovative classics such as Last Year in Marienbad. Maybe Les Herbes Folles – a novel adaptation starring the hard-working Mathieu Amalric – could prove a late masterpiece.
The people's choice
Every festival should have its get-out-the hankies moment, and this year's will come from the long-awaited new film by Terry Gilliam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It features the latest, and definitely the last, posthumous performance (after The Dark Knight) from Heath Ledger, who tragically died during production. Ledger is in there, his role now shared by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Judging from an early still and the synopsis – it's about a travelling theatre manager taking on the Devil – this could be Gilliam in his flamboyant mode of yore.
The barmiest film in the fest
Since there are no new offerings from Catherine Breillat or the Portuguese centenarian Manoel de Oliveira, the Gilliam film could sweep the board for sheer loopiness. But I'd be inclined to take a punt on Agora, a historical extravaganza by Alejandro Amenábar, the Spanish whiz-kid-as-was behind The Others. A sword-and-sandals epic of the old school, Agora is set in 4th-century Egypt and stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, the Western world's first female astronomer and philosopher. Even though reports suggest the recession will hit Cannes' beach-front festivities badly, I can't see Agora's producers passing the chance of a big-time toga party.
The Cannes International Film Festival runs from Wednesday to 24 May
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