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With a strong French presence, veterans and fresh faces, Cannes aims to please

Diaphana / Marion Cotillard in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night"

After a superior 2013 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, pre-emptive grumbling was in full effect ahead of Thursday’s Paris press conference announcing the main competition for this year.


But the roster of 18 movies to compete on the French Riviera for world cinema’s most coveted honour from May 14 to 25 seems like it was assembled with the very intention of not ruffling feathers. A rather conservative-looking, though certainly appealing mix of go-to heavyweights and newer names, the 2014 competition slate appears to have something for everyone.

Dardennes, Cronenberg, Leigh, and Loach – as usual

There are, of course, several of the usual critically adored auteurs, all of whom have snagged prizes at Cannes before. Belgian’s famous fraternal duo, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, could become the first filmmakers to win a third Palme d’Or with “Two Days, One Night”, starring Marion Cotillard as a woman who has one weekend to convince her colleagues to forgo bonuses so she can keep her job. The Dardennes, known for their spare, realistic style and stories of working-class struggle, previously took home the top prize for “Rosetta” (1999) and “The Child” (2005).

One of the most eagerly awaited entries is from another Cannes regular, Canada’s David Cronenberg, whose “Maps to the Stars” features Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack and Mia Wasikowska in a juicy-looking satire of family dysfunction and Hollywood excess.

More sober offerings can be expected from a beloved pair of Brits: the great Mike Leigh, who won the Palme for “Secrets and Lies” in 1996, is back with “Mr. Turner”, a biopic about English Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner; and Ken Loach, who tends to end up in competition regardless of whether his films are worthy, will present what is said to be his final work, “Jimmy’s Hall”. Loach took Cannes’ biggest prize in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”.

No stranger to the Croisette promenade, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who won the second-place Grand Prize for his magisterial “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” in 2011) will unveil his latest opus, “Winter Sleep”. The film runs over three hours, but the festival’s artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, assured journalists this morning that it would screen early in the festival, before fatigue sets in.

And Canada’s Atom Egoyan, a former Grand Prize winner (for 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter”), will try to revive a fading reputation – critics have sniffed at his last few efforts – with kidnapping drama “Captives”. Heartthrob Ryan Reynolds also has something to prove, surely hoping to convert skeptics with a dramatic performance as a dad searching for his missing daughter.

Strong French flavour

As is always the case, France will be robustly represented in competition. Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” features one of the more intriguing casts of the line-up, with Juliette Binoche playing an aging actress, Chloë Moretz her younger costar, and Kristen Stewart her assistant. If it sounds a bit like “All About Eve”, one should never expect the expected from Assayas, an idiosyncratic and cosmopolitan filmmaker whose work has ranged from intimate (“Summer Hours”) to epic (“Carlos”) to unclassifiable (“Demonlover”).

Bertrand Bonello, last on the Croisette in 2011 with “House of Pleasures”, his lush and unflinching look at a late-19th-century brothel, will return with an Yves Saint Laurent biopic, simply called “Saint Laurent”. Starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, Louis Garrel as one of his lovers, and Léa Seydoux as his muse, the film is the second 2014 movie about the iconic French designer (Jalil Lespert’s disappointing “Yves Saint Laurent” was released in France in January).

Michel Hazanavicius, a French director who hit the jackpot Stateside with 2011’s Oscar sensation “The Artist”, changes pace with “The Search”, a drama about an NGO worker (played by the director’s wife, Bérénice Bejo) who becomes close with a boy in war-ravaged Chechnya. Annette Bening co-stars in the film, which, according to Fremaux, is mostly in Russian and Chechen.

And French New Wave giant Jean-Luc Godard will compete in the main category -- for the first time since 2001’s “In Praise of Love” – with “Goodbye to Language 3D”, which was (as the title suggests) shot in 3D and is the shortest film in the line-up at 70 minutes. Godard has never won a Palme d’Or.

Mental illness and mommy issues

The two American movies selected this year come from relatively untested filmmakers, by Cannes standards. Tommy Lee Jones (whose 2005 directorial début, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”, took home Best Actor and Screenplay at Cannes) will present “The Homesman”, a western in which he plays a criminal hired by a pioneer woman (Hilary Swank) to help escort three female mental patients from Nebraska to Iowa. Meanwhile, Bennett Miller (who made “Capote” and “Moneyball”) will lift the curtain on his long-awaited “Foxcatcher”, based on the true story of an Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) and the schizophrenic coach (Steve Carell) who murdered his brother (Mark Ruffalo). At the press conference, Fremaux said that critics would be surprised by the film’s cast.

Frequently accused of passing up fresh talent in favour of veterans, Cannes selectors picked two young filmmakers to face off against their elders in competition this year. 25-year-old French Canadian Xavier Dolan, who has had two movies in the Un Certain Regard side category, is likely popping bottles somewhere; he will by vying for the Palme d’Or with “Mommy”, about a widow, her troubled teenage son, and a mysterious neighbour. Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, 32, will also have a shot with “Le Meraviglie”, her third film.

Careful to avoid accusations of including a “token” woman filmmaker, selectors also picked the latest from Japan’s Naomi Kawase, a Cannes favourite and the only Asian in competition this year. “Still the Water” centres on a boy who discovers a dead body floating in the sea.

And though Fremaux forgot to mention him at the press conference, there is also an African filmmaker, Mauritania’s Abderrahmane Sissako, in the line-up. His “Timbuktu” is said to be a drama about Islamists occupying the Malian city of the title.

Rounding out the competition are “Wild Tales” from Argentina’s Damian Szifron and “Leviathan” from Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose “Elena” won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section in 2011.

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