Almodovar, Lanthimos, Kawase among strong competish prospects

Amid the unusually intense secrecy veiling this year’s Cannes Film Festival lineup, a number of strong competition prospects have emerged, including Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin That I Inhabit,” previously expected to be a no-show, and new works by Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, Japan’s Naomi Kawase and Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev.

With several key titles still to screen, festival topper Thierry Fremaux and his committee are likely to push their decisions to the very last minute before unveiling the official selection on Thursday morning in Paris. Tentative competition lineup looks strong on the usual Euro suspects, with a handful of Asian and Russian titles in the running but fewer known quantities from the U.S. and Latin America.

In late March, it seemed that Almodovar, a Cannes veteran who won prizes for “All About My Mother” and “Volver,” might skip the event altogether this year. Since 2004’s “Bad Education,” the helmer has presented every one of his films in competition at the May fest, usually following a spring local release. The Sept. 2 Spanish release date for “The Skin That I Inhabit” (which Sony Classics will release Stateside in November) may have led Almodovar to initially target one of the fall festivals.

Cannes officials have apparently convinced him to reconsider. Described as a rare foray into horror-thriller territory, pic reteams Almodovar with star Antonio Banderas for the first time since “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990). Its Cannes presence would bolster a competition that was looking lighter on star wattage and auteurial heft than many had anticipated.

With once-hot prospects such as Wong Kar Wai, David Cronenberg, Andrea Arnold and Terence Davies unlikely to have their films ready in time and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” likely headed for a noncompeting berth, a number of the roughly 20 competition slots available are still in play.

As expected, at least six of them have been reserved for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Kid With a Bike,” starring Cecile de France; Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” with Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsbourg; Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”; Finnish helmer Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”; and two films by Italian directors: Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope,” with Michel Piccoli, and Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” starring Sean Penn.

A number of films presently slated for Un Certain Regard could easily be upgraded to the main program. The strongest of these prospects is Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” starring Tilda Swinton (who produced) and John C. Reilly, and based on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel about a school massacre.

While Gus Van Sant would seem a natural competition pick, it’s possible that his latest teen-oriented drama, “Restless,” may instead be offered the Un Certain Regard opening slot. The Sony Classics entry, starring Mia Wasikowska, would provide a big-name anchor for the sidebar, which Fremaux has endeavored to shape as a program for well-known auteurs as well as new talents. Still, the possibility of Van Sant in Un Certain Regard raises the question of which American filmmakers, if any, will be in competition.

Likely to bolster the festival’s Asian presence is Japanese helmer Kawase, whose fifth feature, the title of which is unknown, would be her first film in competition since her 2007 Grand Prix winner “The Mourning Forest.”

Sure to stir interest is “Alps,” a near-certain competition entry from Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”). A drama about a hospital night nurse who provides unusual services to bereaved families, “Alps” stars Venice prize winner Ariane Labed of “Attenberg,” which Lanthimos produced and appeared in.

Zvyagintsev, who directed “The Return” and 2007 Cannes competish entry “The Banishment,” could be back with his Sundance/NHK Intl. Filmmakers award-winning project, “Elena.” Pic is rumored to be coveted by more than one fest, though at press time, certain Cannes officials had yet to see the film.

Other Russian entries expected to find homes in the official selection or Directors’ Fortnight are Nikolai Khomeriki’s black-and-white drama “Heart Boomerang” and Victor Ginzburg’s “Generation P,” based on a novel by hot local novelist Viktor Pelevin.

Question marks surround the placement of at least three Asian filmmakers in the official selection: the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza, China’s Lou Ye and Thailand’s Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Competition regular Mendoza will be back at the festival with his jungle-set drama “Prey,” starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman abducted by the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf.

Lou, who vied for the Palme with “Summer Palace” and “Spring Fever,” could do so again with “Love and Bruises,” a Chinese-French co-production. Ratanaruang (“Nymph,” “Ploy”) could make another appearance with his noirish thriller “Headshot,” though the unfinished film has yet to be screened.

South Korean helmer Na Hong-jin, whose serial-killer thriller “The Chaser” was a midnight-screening hit at Cannes in 2008, looks to repeat the same trick with his sophomore feature, “The Yellow Sea.” Actioner has done boffo biz at home since it opened Dec. 22.

Two directors whose previous pics played Un Certain Regard in 2008 again look likely to be accommodated in the official selection: U.S. helmer Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”) with his sophomore feature, “Simon Killer,” and Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund (“Involuntary”) with his third feature, “Play.”

The time that remains before Thursday’s lineup announcement will largely be devoted to sifting through the many available French titles. While many have yet to be screened, such as Christophe Honore’s “The Beloved,” at least one Gallic entry seems a likelier bet for Un Certain Regard than for the competition: “Chicken With Plums,” Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s live-action follow-up to their animated 2007 jury prize winner “Persepolis.”

A strong push is also being mounted to find a Cannes berth for social satire “Polisse,” the third feature from French actress-helmer Maiwenn Le Besco.

As previously announced, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” will open Cannes on May 11. Fest runs until May 22.

(Nick Holdsworth in Moscow, Leslie Felperin in the U.K. and Boyd van Hoeij in Luxembourg contributed to this report.)

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