The leadup to the Cannes Film Festival has picked up pace, with usual suspects and surprising newbies in the race for the Palme d'Or.
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15 Apr 2011 - 10:26 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

PARIS – Who's more powerful in French publishing: French president Nicolas Sarkozy (whose government can seize the entire print run of any newspaper or magazine judged to include a story detrimental to national security) or American filmmaker Woody Allen?

That would be a silly question the other 11 months of the year, but in May 2011, Woody wins. Allen doesn't want any reviews of his 41st feature, Midnight in Paris, published until after it opens the 64th Cannes Film Festival on the night of 11 May. To comply with Allen's wishes, some French monthly magazines – including venerable film mag POSITIF – won't hit the stands until 12 May, missing out on almost two weeks of potential sales.

With 27 days to go until opinions flow freely about the Paris-set comedy in which Madame Sarkozy (Carla Bruni) appears in two scenes, the international press is encouraged to inform its readers about the 48 other films in the Official Selection (Competition, Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard. For the record, International Critics Week – celebrating its 50th anniversary – and the Directors Fortnight are separately programmed sidebars).

Chosen from 1715 submissions and representing 33 countries, the Official Selection boasts 44 world premieres and 7 first films. One of the two first films in Competition is Australian Julie Leigh's Sleeping Beauty with Emily Browning, Michael Dorman and Mirrah Foulkes. (The other is Michael from Austria, by Michael Haneke's former casting director Markus Schleinzer.)

At the 14 April late-morning press conference, Festival president Gilles Jacob and Festival director Thierry Fremaux drew out the suspense as long as they could. Fremaux explained that the Competition falls into two informal categories: already prominent filmmakers who are familiar from their ongoing association with the Festival and emerging names.

"People say 'Lars von Trier is always in Cannes!'" said Fremaux. (And indeed, Von Trier's end-of-the-world-and-then-some feature Melancholia made the cut.) "Why would we pass up the chance to include one of his films? And, remember, the prizes he has won over the years [including a Palme d'Or for Dancer in the Dark] were given each time by a completely different jury."

Three other filmmakers in this year's Competition line-up have also already won the Golden Palm: Nanni Moretti [Habemus Papam, aka We Have a Pope] and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike) who have co-directed two Palme d'Or-winning features. "We stand up for the idea that great filmmakers make great films," said Fremaux unapologetically. (He did, however, express his sympathy for the 1666 films that weren't accepted: "As you can imagine, we liked way more films than the 49 we had room for.")

The "usual suspects" include Pedro Almodovar (who, with The Skin That I Live In will, for the first time, be showing one of his films in Cannes prior to its release in Spanish cinemas), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre) and Alain Cavalier whose Pater Fremaux says, "is one of the most bizarre things you'll see this year and perhaps in the history of the Festival." It stars Cavalier himself and Vincent Lindon.

"I don't know whether to single this out in order to call attention to it," said Fremaux, "or not make a big deal out of it since it shouldn't be a big deal, but for the first time in Festival history, there are four women directors in Competition." (In addition to Leigh, they are Japan's Naomi Kawase with Hanezu No Tsuki; France's one-named actress-turned-director Maiwenn with Polisse; and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay with We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton.)

When several dozen Palme d'Or-winning directors who had contributed to the Festival's collection of commemorative shorts for the 60th anniversary were all together on the same stage, Jane Campion was asked why she was the only woman ever to have won the festival's top honor. The writer-director of The Piano didn't really have an answer. But as of this year, it's conceivable she'll have company.

Speaking of female directors (and beleaguered actors who play men who converse with stuffed animals), according to Fremaux, Mel Gibson will accompany Jodie Foster for an Out of Competition showing of her film The Beaver. It's fair to assume that in Cannes the allegations of domestic violence that have in the U.S. overshadowed Gibson's considerable gifts as an entertainer, will take a very distant back seat to the film's artistic merit.

Fremaux added that attention-getting commercial films (Pirates of the Caribbean 4, with Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp attending) are included because "the big movies protect the little ones," which is a more generous approach than, say, 'Big-budget behemoths crush everything in their path.'

In his prepared remarks, Jacob emphasised how very many ways there now are to watch movies and that the big screen is, for many, being supplanted by tiny mobile devices. Jacob asserts that new delivery systems which "should" be helping smaller films may be pushing them further into the margins. "Cinema consists of telling stories with images – it always has and it always will," says Jacob, adding "Measuring success Hollywood-style by the number of tickets sold or money made is silly. It's not because a film doesn't immediately find its audience that it's not a good movie."

Jacob also declared, "The goal of the Cannes Film Festival is to make sure as many people as possible can view new work and carry news of it out into the wider world." That's a big switch from the way things were handled before the Web became ubiquitous. Before laptop computers and the Internet, the names of publicists were closely guarded. Now members of the press all over the world can get the information they need – or at least get started in the pursuit of same – with a few clicks of the mouse. Cannes remains an insular trade show with a strictly enforced hierarchy of accreditation, but has managed to move with the times and embrace new technologies to an admirable degree.

Terrence Malick's long-awaited Tree of Life will have its world premiere in Competition. The notoriously meticulous Malick was not ready for last May. Fremaux says the film was completed a few months after last year's Festival and that Malick saved it for Cannes this year. "We're still trying to explain to Terry how a press conference works," Fremaux joked about the soft-spoken director who brought Days of Heaven to Cannes in 1978. "People ask questions and he's supposed to answer. But it's an uphill battle."

After he'd read out the names of several directors and their films alphabetically (Almodovar, Bertrand Bonello, Alain Cavalier, Joseph Cedar, Nuri Bilge Ceylan) Fremaux asked a journalist in the audience "Are you phoning in each name as I read it off?" Apparently, the answer was "yes." "How many of you are Tweeting right now?" asked Fremaux. A smattering of participants raised their hands and their phones. Fremaux: "Nothing I've said so far is accurate. Here's the real list..."

He knows how to work a crowd.

One promising Out of Competition title is The Artist by France's Michel Hazanavicius. The silent tribute to the silent era, which will be shown in the old-fashioned 'square' aspect ration of 1:33, stars Jean Dujardin, who played smug secret agent OSS 117 for the director in two terrific spoofs, and also features Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman.

Sean Penn, who was neck-deep in humanitarian work last year and unavailable to promote the only American film in the 2010 Competition, Fair Game, figures in two Competition films this year: Tree of Life and Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place.

The Competition's companion section, Un Certain Regard, was initiated by Gilles Jacob in 1992. "It's counter-programming to the main program, programmed from within," said Fremaux.

This year it includes work ranging from former Palme d'Or winner Gus Van Sant's Restless to young aboriginal talent Ivan Sen's Toomelah.

Special Screenings include the 1970s-set French documentary Tous au Larzac, directed by Christian Rouaud. "We've been told to expect sheep on the red carpet," said Fremaux. If you're a black sheep, must you wear black tie? Presumably they'll all be "wearing" tails.