CANNES, France – Despite the mood in Europe, don't expect any austerity at the Cannes Film Festival, the annual Cote d'Azur extravaganza where glamour is wrapped in world cinema fervor and gauzy Mediterranean sunshine.
Except for the Oscars, it's the flashiest red carpet in the world, a ruby staircase flanked by tuxedoed photographers — and a world away from financial turmoil.
Yet Cannes, the 65th edition of which starts Wednesday, fetes its directors as much as it does its stars. This year, there are plenty of both: esteemed international filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke to big-name talent like Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman.
Among the 22 films in competition, there's a particularly large American contingent, starting with the opening night film, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." The movie about adolescent love on the run brings a few new actors (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton) into Anderson's carefully orchestrated world.
Later, there's David Cronenberg's Don DeLillo adaptation "Cosmopolis," starring Robert Pattinson, and Walter Salles' ("The Motorcycle Diaries") anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac's beloved "On the Road." That film, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, stars Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, but has attracted more attention for its supporting roles, including Pattinson's "Twilight" co-star Kristen Stewart as Dean Moriarty's girlfriend.
There's also John Hillcoat's "Lawless," a Prohibition-era bootlegging tale starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, and Andrew Dominick's "Killing Them Softly," a crime film starring Pitt as a Mob enforcer. The unusually large U.S. group is rounded out by Jeff Nichols' "Mud," with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, and Lee Daniels' "Precious" follow up, "The Paperboy," a death row drama starring McConaughey, Zac Efron and Kidman.
"The Americans are coming!" heralds Daniels, whose "Precious" screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section.
That echoes the same sentiment of Cannes' artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who declared America cinema "back in full force" when announcing the lineup.
For Daniels, the festival is a comfortable place to premiere his latest.
"We get so caught up, as Americans, in a specific type of film experience that we forget that this is a small fraction of what cinema is about," he says. "It's OK to be odd. I remember when I was doing 'Precious,' everybody looking at me and scratching their heads like, 'What are you doing, really?' I remember feeling that I was odd, and I don't feel odd at Cannes."
Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" last won the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, the first American film to do so since Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004. Although the French silent film ode "The Artist" was bested by "Tree of Life" at Cannes, it went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
"The Artist" had been picked up for U.S. distribution ahead of Cannes by Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. will release "Lawless" and "Killing Them Softly" this fall. He's frequently used Cannes as a place to both acquire and launch films.
"Cannes is a worldwide arena," says Weinstein. "It's just a great opportunity to launch something. The worldwide press is there and it commands worldwide attention. You get such a difference of opinion, and when it comes together as a consensus, you can really launch a movie like we did 'The Artist' last year."
Several films in competition will be looking for distribution, and some have already found it. "On the Road" was last week acquired by IFC Films and Sundance Selects with plans for a release late this year. In deals signed in hotel rooms and aboard yachts, many other films in various stages of production will be bought and sold. After a robust market in 2011, Weinstein — "a buyer and a seller" this year, he says — describes this year's market as "maybe stronger."
Other films will seek to benefit from the global convergence of media, like the upcoming DreamWorks animation blockbuster "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," which will screen out of competition, and "The Dictator," for which Sacha Baron Cohen is expected to make an in-character promotional appearance on the waterfront Wednesday. The festival will also host a fundraiser for several Haiti charities, including Sean Penn's.
Whereas Penn and Pitt are familiar favorites at Cannes, this year's festival includes a new crop of young actors seeking more adventurous work, including LaBeouf, Efron and Pattinson.
"When you fantasize about how the world views you as an actor, you're like, 'I want to be recognized at Cannes,'" says Pattinson, who has drawn high compliments from his director, Cronenberg, for his performance in "Cosmopolis."
Pattinson has previously been to Cannes to promote the "Twilight" film "New Moon" in 2009, but he's clearly thrilled to be a part of the main slate.
"Hopefully, people don't hate it," he says, alluding to Cannes' famously vocal audiences.
Newcomers, though, are outnumbered by veterans this year. More than two-thirds of the directors with films in competition have previously had films at the festival.
There are no women directors in competition this year, after four last year — an outcome that the feminist group La Barbe has condemned in an online petition.
Haneke, the Austrian director who won the Palme d'Or for "The White Ribbon" in 2009, returns with "Amour," about an octogenarian couple. The British filmmaker Ken Loach, winner of the Palme in 2006 for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," is back with "The Angels' Share" — atypically for Loach, a comedy. The Iranian master Kiarostami, whose "Taste of Cherry" won the Palme in 1997, has the Tokyo drama "Like Someone in Love."
That also leaves international heavyweights Jacques Audiard ("Rust and Bone"), Cristian Mungiu ("Beyond the Hills"), Matteo Garrone ("Reality"), Hong Sang-soo ("In Another Country," Carlos Reygadas ("Post Tenebras Lux") and the 89-year-old Alain Resnais ("You Haven't Seen Anything Yet").
Several of the American films are international collaborations, helmed by filmmakers from Brazil (Salles), New Zealand (Dominik) and Australia (Hillcoat).
At Cannes, the context is always macro: all the world, all of cinema.
"It's great to have an American genre film in that kind of arena, where what you're coming to do is just share storytelling and the love of filmmaking as opposed to national boundaries," says Hillcoat. "That's what's really exciting about Cannes."
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