Cannes' selectors this year have opted for absolute simplicity: main competition is the home of the established names of the art-house, while Un Certain Regard gives room for experimentation, new directors and little seen schools of film-making.
Rather than follow the example of Venice last year and launch two largely indistinguishable competitions of supposedly equal merit, they sought established talent and known quality for the competition showcase. Gilles Jacob, Thierry Fremaux and their teams are understood to have seen over 1,200 features, an increase of 25%, in order to arrive at their eventual shortlist of 22 competition titles.
The competition features previous competition winners Mike Leigh, the Dardenne brothers and Abbas Kiarostami. Previous competitors include Olivier Assayas, Michael Winterbottom, Manoel De Oliveira, Alexander Sokurov, Roman Polanski, Ken Loach, Aki Kaurismaki, Im Kwon Taek, Amos Gitai, David Cronenberg and Marco Bellocchio. (But another previous contender, Atom Egoyan, will again miss out on the top jury prize since his new Amenian genocide film Ararat is playing out of competition.) The one female director, Nicole Garcia, had previously competed in the short film section.
Significantly, the three US directors that have made it into main competition represent a new generation of American film-making. Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and Michael Moore (with his gun control documentary) are among the freshest elements in the section in that all are newcomers to the maincompetition, if not Cannes itself. Other than this trio, the most recognised American-based directors - Woody Allen, Barbet Schroeder and Martin Scorsese - are all out competition or featured in the special screenings, where they are also joined by two US-made documentaries - Rosanna Arquette's exploration of actresses and also The Kid Stays In The Picture, the popular Sundance profile of Hollywood producer Robert Evans.
Earlier press commentary has made much of the numerous British films in official selection - three - after a period of drought. But the only new UK discovery, Francesca Joseph's Tomorrow La Scala is in Un Certain Regard, while the much touted Lynne Ramsay will now appear in Directors Fortnight (La Quinzaine Des Realisateurs) with Morvern Callar.
Un Certain Regard, on the other hand, reflects a geographical renewal. It is dominated by films from the Mediterranean and Middle East (Algeria, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Turkey) and includes seven first features.
Despite the classicism of the Competition section, festival organisers promised a break from the diet of earnest films that have won it a reputation for being gloomy. Films this year include a healthy smattering of comedy and even a Bollywood musical. "We wanted to break the rule which has it that the selection of the Cannes film festival should always be tragic and solemn," said artistic director Fremaux at the press conference.
As expected there were fewer Asian films than last year, and no Japanese at all after the four of 2001. This may reflect a timing issue in the Asian production cycle. But there is room for only the second ever Korean film in competition Im Kwon-taek's Stroke Of Fire.
The most controversial element is likely to be Gaspar Noe's sexually explicit Irreversible.
There was no room for some of the widely expected titles including Neil Jordan's The Honest Thief, Tonie Marshall's Au Plus Pres De Paradis, John Sayles' Sunshine State, Arturo Ripstein's Cafe Cortado, Thomas Vinterberg's Its All About Love, Hong Sang-soo's Turning Gate and Prince Chatri Chalerm's Suriyothai, despite that Thai film's recent godfathering collaboration with Cannes favourite Francis Ford Coppola.
All these overlooked films may yet secure prestigious berths at subsequent films festivals this year, such as Venice, San Sebastian, Toronto, New York and next year's Berlin, perhaps joining a host of other eagerly awaited films like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Zhang Yimou's Hero, Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, Sam Mendes' Road To Perdition, Spike Jonze's Adaptation and, of course, the completed version of Scorsese's Gangs Of New York.