This year’s Cannes line-up: A festival hall of fame

It could be the script for a high-concept Hollywood blockbuster. Down on the Riviera, the Cannes film festival is braced for its bloodiest year in decades as the recession bites, the casinos stand empty and the champagne is replaced with sparkling rosé. But wait: riding to the rescue are all the heroes from festivals past, an army of art-house darlings summoned home to save the day.

Announced last week, the official line-up for this year’s event reads like a festival hall of fame. It gives indulgent centre stage to former Palme d’Or winners such as Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Ken Loach, and old faithfuls such as Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodovar, Gaspar Noe and Ang Lee. Variety magazine hailed it as “Cannes’s biggest heavyweight auteur smackdown in recent years”.

Two British films are among the 20 nominees for the Palme d’Or. Loach will be hoping his social-realist fairytale Looking for Eric can repeat the feat of his 2006 prize-winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Showcasing a wry turn from Eric Cantona, Loach’s film concerns a glum postman who receives some Gallic life lessons from the former Manchester United striker.

Looking for Eric is joined in the competition by the coming-of-age drama Fish Tank, the second film from writer-director Andrea Arnold. Three years ago Arnold won the jury prize with her debut feature, Red Road. “British film is flying right now,” John Woodward, chief executive of the UK Film Council, said. “This year’s Cannes line-up shows that the British industry is delivering world-class cinema, which complements the kind of commercial success that was recognised at the Oscars earlier this year.” For good measure, Woodward pointed out that another nominee, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, was also buttressed by British lottery funding. Charting the romance of the poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne, the film stars Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.

But the news was less encouraging for American cinema, with Tarantino’s gore-soaked Inglourious Basterds the sole American film selected for the main competition. Described by its director as “a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography”, the picture stars Brad Pitt as a gung-ho army lieutenant, rattling hell-for-leather across Europe in a hunt for Nazi scalps.

Other potential highlights include Antichrist, a satanic horror film from Von Trier, Lee’s hippie saga Taking Woodstock and Broken Embraces, a psychological thriller that reunites Almodovar with his favourite actor, Penelope Cruz. Heavily tipped to win the top prize for Hidden back in 2005, the Austrian film-maker Haneke gets another bite at the cherry with The White Ribbon, in which a rural school in 1900s Germany becomes a petri dish for fascism. Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will play out of competition.

The announcement two weeks ago ensures the Cannes organisers have at least arranged an enticing shop-window display. But the festival’s success is largely decided behind the scenes — in the marketplace behind the Palais, where thousands of film titles are snapped up by international distributors. It remains to be seen whether the cash flows as freely this year. Gilles Jacob, the festival director, has predicted that visitor numbers are likely to drop. Yacht rental firms have reported a decline in business, suggesting the usual Cannes fraternity could well be steering clear.

The 62nd Cannes film festival opens on May 13 with the world premiere of the Pixar animation Up, about an old man who tethers helium balloons to his house and wafts off in search of adventure. The curtain falls 11 days later with the ritzy biopic, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski. —

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