Distaff directors and protags pepper Cannes lineup

Looking over the enticingly eclectic official selection lineup for the 64th Cannes Film Festival, it’s hard not to wonder if fest topper Thierry Fremaux has borrowed a few tips of late from Venice director Marco Mueller.

Last year, many festgoers felt the Lido upstaged its more prestigious summertime rival with a program that struck an ideal balance of American critical hits (Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff”), uncompromising art cinema (Pablo Larrain’s “Post Mortem,” Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls”) and classy action fare (Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins,” Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame”). Mueller also made a point of presenting three female filmmakers in competition — Reichardt, Athina Rachel Tsangari with “Attenberg” and Sofia Coppola with the Golden Lion-winning “Somewhere” — in a year when not a single woman was deemed worthy of a shot at the Palme d’Or.

On this last point, at least, Fremaux has taken obvious pains to avoid a repeat scenario. This year, an unprecedented four female filmmakers will compete at Cannes: respected Scottish talent Lynne Ramsay with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (already stirring buzz for lead actress Tilda Swinton); Grand Prix winner Naomi Kawase of Japan with “Hanezu no tsuki”; Australian debutante Julia Leigh with erotic drama “Sleeping Beauty,” presented by her countrywoman Jane Campion; and French celebrity helmer Maiwenn with “Polisse,” about an affair between a police-beat reporter and one of her subjects.

And as Fremaux tells Variety, a number of competition entries directed by men chose to concern themselves with distaff protagonists and themes, such as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Kid With a Bike,” starring Cecile de France; Radu Mihaileanu’s battle-of-the-sexes dramedy “La Source des femmes”; and Bertrand Bonello’s “L’apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close),” set in a 19th-century Parisian brothel.

Further underscoring the putative Venice influence, a number of genre pictures have been granted pride of place in the competition. Enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn will contend with his high-octane indie car-chase thriller, “Drive,” while Venice regular Miike will bring “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai,” the first 3D picture invited to compete at Cannes and perhaps the fest’s most au courant selection.

To his credit, it’s hardly the first time Fremaux has offered action films the competition spotlight, as he did most notoriously with Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” winner of the 2004 Grand Prix; other examples include Johnnie To’s “Election” (2005), Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (2007) and Park’s “Thirst” (2009).

“We need to get rid of the traditional division between genre and auteur films. Genre films are simply films; it’s that easy. An action film doesn’t exist without a mise-en-scene, either,” Fremaux says. “We haven’t programmed a pure comedy in competition yet, but we are moving toward that.”

Pure or impure, one should expect comedy of a sort from Finnish deadpan artist Aki Kaurismaki, back in competition with his French-language “Le Havre”; silent-movie pastiche “The Artist,” the latest collaboration between “OSS 117″ helmer Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin; and “The Conquest,” Italian satirist Nanni Moretti, returning with the mainstream-friendly “We Have a Pope,” starring Michel Piccoli as the titular pontiff. Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, whose sci-fi melodrama “Melancholia” stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, can always be counted on for a convulsive laugh or two, as can Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose latest feature is the imposingly titled “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

Kaurismaki, Moretti, von Trier and Ceylan are all competition veterans, as is 79-year-old Alain Cavalier, who will bring his latest picture, the intimate two-hander “Pater.” Far more surprising inclusions are Austrian helmer Markus Schleinzer’s first feature, “Michael” (the other debut besides Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”), and “Footnote,” a tale of father-son academic rivalry from Israeli director Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”). Both choices are indicative of Fremaux’s willingness to think beyond the usual auteur suspects and infuse the competition with younger blood.

As with last year, only one American director will be in competition, though one might be enough in the case of Terrence Malick, whose auteur mystique is second to none, and whose long-gestating epic “The Tree of Life” could hit that festival sweet spot where artistic ambition and star mega-wattage sometimes converge. Sean Penn, who co-stars with Brad Pitt in “Tree of Life,” is also the centerpiece of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” in which the actor plays a retired rock star hunting down the ex-Nazi responsible for his father’s death.

Other name thesps toplining Cannes competish fare include Antonio Banderas, reteaming with Pedro Almodovar for the first time in 20 years in his dark plastic-surgery thriller “The Skin I Live In”; Swinton and John C. Reilly in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”; and Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan in “Drive.”

For bigger names still, one need only look out of competition, where, as usual, the bulk of the Hollywood product in the official selection can be found. These include Woody Allen’s opening-night entry “Midnight in Paris,” starring Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams; Rob Marshall’s contribution to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, fronted by red-carpet draws Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz; and Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver,” starring Mel Gibson.

Rising young thesp Mia Wasikowska is the star of Gus Van Sant’s “Restless,” which will open the Un Certain Regard sidebar. While the berth may seem a downgrade for Van Sant, who won the Palme d’Or for “Elephant,” it falls in line with Fremaux’s stated mission to elevate that noncompetitive program, blending well-regarded auteurs with up-and-coming talents. Van Sant is scarcely the only name helmer in Un Certain Regard, which also includes Kim Ki-duk’s “Arirang,” Bruno Dumont’s “Hors Satan” and Hong Sang-soo’s “The Day He Arrives.”

Joining Kim and Hong in Un Certain Regard is a third South Korean helmer, Na Hong-jin, with his thriller “The Yellow Sea” — which, along with Peter Chan’s “Wu xia” in midnight screenings, will bolster the strong showing for Asian action fare in the official selection. Still, the absence of any Korean or Chinese films in competition is somewhat conspicuous, especially after last year’s trifecta of “Poetry,” “The Housemaid” and “Chongqing Blues.” The only two Palme contenders from Asia both hail from Japan, which hasn’t enjoyed so strong a Cannes presence in years; early buzz suggests that while Fremaux and his selection committee were gratified by the quality of the Japanese titles, they were also pleased to give the country a moral and cultural boost in the devastating aftermath of the March earthquake and tsunami.

Competition-wise, Latin America has also been in a fallow period since 2008, the year of “Blindness,” “The Headless Woman,” “Lion’s Den” and “Linha de passe” (as well as Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” a Spanish-French co-production). This year continues the trend, though Un Certain Regard does boast “Miss Bala,” from Mexico’s Gerardo Naranja (“I’m Gonna Explode”); “Hard Labor,” from Brazil’s Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra; and “Bonsai,” from Chile’s Cristian Jimenez.

Other Un Certain Regard titles likely to attract considerable interest based on directorial pedigree are “Elena,” from Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev (“The Banishment”); “Halt auf freier Strecke,” from Germany’s Andreas Dresen (“Cloud 9″); “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” from France’s Robert Guediguian (“The Army of Crime”); “Tatsumi,” an animated feature from Singapore’s Eric Khoo (“My Magic”); and “Oslo, August 31st,” from Joachim Trier (“Reprise”).

France, as ever, is widely repped throughout the official selection, with three Gaul-funded titles in special screenings: Michael Radford’s “Michel Petrucciani”; Christian Rouaud’s “Tous au Larzac”; Rithy Panh’s “Du
ch, Master of the Forges of Hell.” Two potentially splashy French pics will both play out of competition: Xavier Durringer’s “The Conquest,” a biopic of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Christophe Honore’s closing-night entry “The Beloved,” with Catherine Deneuve and Ludivine Sagnier.

India, rarely well represented at Cannes, will receive a Croisette showcase with Shekhar Kapur’s “Bollywood, the Greatest Love Story Ever Told,” an 81-minute montage of moments from classics of Hindi-language cinema.

It may not be a programming decision on par with, say, entering an Indian film in competition (something that hasn’t happened since Shaji N. Karun’s “Swaham” played Cannes in 1994), but as with so much of this year’s official selection, it does suggest the grande dame of international film festivals is taking a few steps in a bolder, more inclusive direction.

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