Heavyweight auteurs vie for Palme d'Or

Never say never again.

Last year, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux swore the competition would be “recentered and renewed,” opening up to lesser-known helmers and left-of-field pics.

Twelve months later, the competition of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival reads like a who’s-who of revered Riviera regulars, including four previous Palme d’Or winners.

Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar and Lars von Trier will face off with Jane Campion, Michael Haneke, Johnnie To and Park Chan-wook in Cannes’ biggest heavyweight auteur smackdown in recent years.

All have snagged competition berths at next month’s festival, whose official lineup was unveiled Thursday at a packed press conference in Paris’ Grand Hotel by Fremaux and fest prexy Gilles Jacob.

The plethora of world cinema’s great and good begs the question of whether it’s part cause or part consequence of the thinnest Yank presence in competition since 2006. Only two U.S. titles are in the battle for the Palme: “Inglourious Basterds” and “Taking Woodstock.”

Tarantino’s “Basterds,” a WWII actioner starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mike Myers and Eli Roth, leads the Croisette charge for the U.S., followed by Lee’s “Woodstock,” a comedic take on the legendary concert with Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Emile Hirsch.

Fremaux said Tarantino, who’s pushing to complete “Basterds” in time, has promised to deliver a 35mm print, not just a digital copy, which pushes forward the competition deadline by days.

Even in the noncompeting sidebars of the Official Selection, which usually showcase big-name Hollywood fare, it’s slim pickings for the U.S. this year. Sam Raimi’s horror opus “Drag Me to Hell,” already a highlight in an unfinished version at March’s SXSW fest, scored a Midnight Screening slot, while Anne Aghion’s docu on post-Rwandan genocide reconciliation, “My Neighbor, My Killer,” has a Special Screenings berth.

Aside from this year’s opening film, Pixar 3-D toon “Up,” the only other U.S. pic in the Official Selection is Lee Daniels’ Sundance multiprize winner, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” in Un Certain Regard.

Among names strongly rumored to have been offered slots but not figuring in the final selection, the most prominent is Francis Ford Coppola with his indie project “Tetro,” starring Vincent Gallo. Pic was offered a non-competing slot, but the two-time Palme d’Or-winning director, reportedly miffed at not being welcomed back to the competition, declined.

In most years, the out-of-competition titles include Hollywood crowd-pleasers — such as last year’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Kung Fu Panda” — but American fare is little represented even here this year.

In 2009, the U.S. films were simply not there to be selected, Fremaux told Daily Variety. He might also have added that, as the studios increasingly eyeball their bottom lines, they’ve become much more cautious about making such an expensive roll of the dice with a Cannes competition screening.

There are 14 first films among the 52 pics of the whole Official Selection. Amping up the Fortress Auteur look of this year’s Palme d’Or slugfest, the competish features not a single name new to Cannes or any first-timers, placing tried-and-tested world cinema grand filmmakers front and center.

Explaining their presence, Fremaux told Daily Variety that he’d been spoiled.

“It’s as if every great director phoned every other great filmmaker and said, ‘Let’s make sure we’re ready for Cannes,’ ” he said.

In recent years, the competition has experimented with fresh directions, though since his highpoint in 2004, Fremaux had seemed to gradually yield to a more conservative style of programming. This year’s Official Selection suggests that once the availability of pics from so many top filmmakers became clear, and with U.S. films at a premium, Fremaux decided to go with the flow.

The abundance of top directors — like a classic program by current fest prexy and former programmer Jacob — gives this year’s Cannes shape, identity and an obvious talking point, plus a convenient argument against those complaining about the lack of Yank fare.

“In competition, we have some of the world’s most famous and greatest auteurs, but some of their films are more mainstream and open than could be thought,” Fremaux said.

Australia’s Campion competes with a British period romance, “Bright Star,” centering on ill-fated 19th century English poet John Keats. Pic stars Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. Loach’s “Looking for Eric” turns on a lovelorn postman mentored by Gallic soccer star-turned-thesp Eric Cantona.

Almodovar brings “Broken Embraces,” a genre-blender starring his muse Penelope Cruz as a star-crossed actress.

Michael Haneke (“Cache”) chronicles nascent fascism in 1913-set costumer “The White Ribbon,” and Marco Bellocchio examines the life of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s secret child in “Vincere.”

Alain Resnais’ “Les Herbes folles,” Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” Xavier Giannoli’s “In the Beginning” and Gaspar Noe’s last-minute submission “Enter the Void,” fly the flag for Gaul, which has one of its biggest competish presences in recent years — especially if one includes co-productions such as “Bright Star,” “Looking for Eric,” von Trier’s “Antichrist,” To’s “Vengeance” and Tsai Ming-liang’s “Face.”

The 62nd Cannes is the first to unspool under the current global recession. But its competition also reflects the global melting pot — in ever-more-prevalent English-language productions from foreign helmers, the pics’ patchwork border-hopping financing and helmers tackling foreign cultures or culture clashes. And Gaul has one of its biggest competish presences in recent years.

Pairing Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist,” a forest cabin-set chiller, is made in English.

“There’s no limit, no borders. Look at Tarantino, a pure American making his latest film in Germany and in France,” Fremaux said.

Somewhat similarly, “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” from Spaniard Isabel Coixet, is set in Tokyo, stars Spain’s Sergi Lopez and Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi and features both English and Japanese dialogue.

Vampire thriller “Thirst,” from South Korea’s Park Chan-wook (Grand Prix winner “Oldboy”), leads a strong Asian presence in competition that includes Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To’s “Vengeance,” starring Johnny Hallyday on the rampage in H.K.; Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay”; and “Face,” a French-set extravaganza from Taiwan-based maverick Tsai. China’s Lou Ye (“Summer Palace”) is back at Cannes with a reportedly torrid young-love-triangle tale, “Spring Fever.”

The “newest” director is 48-year-old Brit Andrea Arnold, who segues from her acclaimed debut “Red Road” (which won the Cannes jury prize in 2006) to teenage girl drama “Fish Tank.”

Returning after a seven-year break is Middle East helmer Elia Suleiman with Palestinian family saga “The Time That Remains.” The Palestinian helmer last competed in Cannes with “Divine Intervention,” which won the jury prize in 2002.

Fest closes May 24 with “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” starring Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen and directed by Dutch vet Jan Kounen.

Playing out of competition is Terry Gilliam’s fantasy pic “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” featuring Heath Ledger’s last performance, with Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law sharing Ledger’s role.

Alejandro Amenabar’s Roman Egypt-set epic “Agora,” toplining Rachel Weisz as real-life astrologer Hypatia of Alexandria, also wrestled an out-of-competition slot. So did WWII drama “The Army of Crime,” from Robert Guediguian (“Marius and Jeannette”), which spotlights Armenians fighting for the French Resistance.

Beyond “Drag Me,” Midnight Screenings slots go to Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s “A Town Called Panic,” an animated feature spinoff from Gallic Canal Plus’ cult toon series, and Marina de Van’s psychodrama-thriller “Ne te retourne pas,” starring Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau.

Special Screenings include “My Neighbor, My Killer”; vet Malian Souleymane Cisse’s multiparter “Min ye,” about families’ everyday problems; and Keren Yedaya’s “Jaffa,” an Arab-Israeli forbidden love story.

Chinese documaker Zhao Liang has a Special Screening with “Petition,” his follow-up to the acclaimed “Crime and Punishment.”

Fremaux has fought for years against Un Certain Regard’s rep as a competition rejects’ basket, calling it a section of discovery. “Un Certain Regard is an alternative, not a second-division section,” Fremaux told Daily Variety.

But this year’s lineup has still has a large dose of Cannes faves, including Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda with “Air Doll” (about a clerk falling for an inflatable female doll); Pavel Lounguine with “Tzar”; Romanian directors Cristian Mungiu (anthology pic “Tales from the Golden Age”); and Corneliu Porumboiu (“Police, Adjective”); South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“Mother”); and Thailand’s Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“Nymph”).

Un Certain Regard also features Latin America’s only Official Selection presence, courtesy of the Fernando Meirelles-produced “Adrift,” from Heitor Dhalia, one of Brazil’s hippest young helmers, and Ciro Guerra’s Garcia Marquez-ish “The Wind Journeys.”

The Official Selection’s 52 pics include 46 world preems. They were culled from 1,670 features received from 120 countries. Announced by Jacob, this year’s competition jury, presided over by France’s Isabelle Huppert, includes Yanks James Gray and Robin Wright Penn.

Still to be announced are Cannes Classics, the short-film selection, and the Cinefondation’s choice.

The Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week both announce their full programs Friday in Paris. It remains to be seen if some bruited competition titles, such as Coppola’s “Tetro,” will resurface in either section.

(Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.)

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

OPENER
“Up,” U.S., Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

CLOSER
“Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” France, Jan Kounen

IN COMPETITION
“Bright Star,” Australia-U.K.-France, Jane Campion
“Spring Fever,” China-France, Lou Ye
“Antichrist,” Denmark-Sweden-France-Italy, Lars von Trier
“Enter the Void,” France, Gaspar Noe
“Face,” France-Taiwan-Netherlands-Belgium, Tsai Ming-liang
“Les Herbes folles,” France-Italy, Alain Resnais
“In the Beginning,” France, Xavier Giannoli
“A Prophet,” France, Jacques Audiard
“The White Ribbon,” Germany-Austria-France, Michael Haneke
“Vengeance,” Hong Kong-France-U.S., Johnnie To
“The Time That Remains,” Palestine-France, Elia Suleiman
“Vincere,” Italy-France, Marco Bellocchio
“Kinatay,” Philippines, Brillante Mendoza
“Thirst,” South Korea-U.S., Park Chan-wook
“Broken Embraces,” Spain, Pedro Almodovar
“Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” Spain, Isabel Coixet
“Fish Tank,” U.K.-Netherlands, Andrea Arnold
“Looking for Eric,” U.K.-France-Belgium-Italy, Ken Loach
“Inglourious Basterds,” U.S., Quentin Tarantino
“Taking Woodstock,” U.S., Ang Lee

OUT OF COMPETITION
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Canada-France, Terry Gilliam
“The Army of Crime,” France, Robert Guediguian
“Agora,” Spain, Alejandro Amenabar

MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS
“A Town Called Panic,” Belgium, Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar
“Ne te retourne pas,” France-Belgium-Luxembourg-Italy, Marina de Van
“Drag Me to Hell,” U.S., Sam Raimi

SPECIAL SCREENINGS
“Petition,” China, Zhao Liang
“L’epine dans le coeur,” France, Michel Gondry
“Min ye,” France-Mali, Souleyumane Cisse
“Jaffa,” Israel-France-Germany, Keren Yedaya
“Manila,” Philippines, Adolfo Alix Jr., Raya Martin
“My Neighbor, My Killer,” U.S., Anne Aghion

UN CERTAIN REGARD
“Samson & Delilah,” Australia, Warwick Thornton
“Adrift,” Brazil, Heitor Dhalia
“The Wind Journeys,” Colombia, Ciro Guerra
“Demain des l’aube,” France, Denis Dercourt
“Irene,” France, Alain Cavalier
“Air Doll,” Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda
“Independance,” Philippines-France-Germany, Raya Martin
“Le Pere de mes enfants,” France-Germany, Mia Hansen-Love
“Dogtooth,” Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos
“Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats,” Iran, Bahman Ghobadi
“Eyes Wide Open,” Israel, Haim Tabakman
“Mother,” South Korea, Bong Joon-ho
“The Silent Army,” Netherlands, Jean van de Velde
“To Die Like a Man,” Portugal, Joao Pedro Rodrigues
“Police, Adjective,” Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu
“Tales from the Golden Age,” Romania, Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru
“Tale in the Darkness,” Russia, Nikolay Khomeriki
“Tzar,” Russia-France, Pavel Lounguine
“Nymph,” Thailand, Pen-ek Ratanaruang
“Precious,” U.S., Lee Daniels

FEATURE FILM JURY
Isabelle Huppert (president), actress, France
Asia Argento, actress, director, screenwriter, Italy
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director, screenwriter, actor, Turkey
Lee Chang-dong, director, author, screenwriter, South Korea
James Gray, director, screenwriter, U.S.
Hanif Kureishi, author, screenwriter, U.K.
Shu Qi, actress, Taiwan
Robin Wright Penn, actress, U.S.

LA CINEFONDATION AND SHORT FILM JURY
John Boorman (president), director, author, producer, U.K.
Bertrand Bonello, director, France
Ferid Boughedir, director, Tunisia
Leonor Silveira, actress, Portugal
Zhang Ziyi, actress, China

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