Cannes' competition holds few surprises in that the line-up has been widely predicted. But it contains a number of innovations and presents a genuinely diverse panoply of film-making around the world.
In the spirit of small is beautiful, the number of films in main competition has been cut from 23 last year to just 18 this time. And the number of local French-language pictures has been cut from the usual four to three this time. But the programme is boosted by an expanded out-of-competition list and a new sidebar of "Cannes Classics".
Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told journalists at a press lunch today that he believed the selection included "the grand auteurs and what we believe will be the important films of 2004."
Evidently feeling under pressure after last year's disappointing selection, he added: "We wanted to renew Cannes a bit this year and get out of a routine'We put pressure on ourselves. This is the year for us to show that we can move and change with the times."
Innovations include pitching Shrek 2, a studio-backed digital animation that is also a sequel, up against more experimental European independents such as Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei, by Germany's White Noise-director Hans Weingartner. With Mamuro Oshii's Innocence, the number of animation films in competition is an unprecedented two.
Genre films - such as Park Chan-wook's Old Boy and out of competition Zhang Yimou's love and martial arts story The Flying Daggers and historical epic Troy - are also set to make a strong impression. "People are tired of aggravating auteur films," said Cannes president Gilles Jacob. "Films need to be able to capture the audience's interest from beginning to end. But, we also have to allow the time for films to mature."
South Korea's growing force in international cinema is reflected by the first time inclusion of two Korean films in competition. Asian film-making is well represented with another Japanese title Nobody Knows by Hirozu Kora-Eda, Wong Kar Wai's 2046 and Tropical Malady by Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
While established masters Walter Salles, Wong and Emir Kusturica are as expected all present, arguably the biggest surprise of the competition line-up is the absence of Vera Drake by Mike Leigh. Many buyers had considered it a near certainty to be flying the UK flag. Instead that honour goes to biopic, The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers. (Zhang Yimou's Flying Daggers, which had been widely tipped for competition, finds itself in the expanded out-of-competition list.)
The inclusion of Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 will be a surprise to some. The controversial film-maker had signaled that he might hold it back for release closer to the US presidential election.
In fact, Fremaux acknowledged today that the film was not yet completed. "It's what you would call a film in movement since it's not entirely ready. The film we saw is probably not the film that will be screened in Cannes nor the final film that will be released." The same is true, he said, of Wong Kar Wai's 2046.
At the press lunch, the Cannes team also addressed concerns that the festival may be disrupted by striking French showbusiness technicians or, worse, terrorist threats.
Cannes managing director Veronique Cayla insisted that security precautions would be tight. "For three years running we've had measures in place and this year will be the same and very efficient."
Cayla admitted, however, that a meeting of the board of Cannes was interrupted this morning by striking workers.
Should the festival be threatened by disruption by the striking workers, the board has given Jacob and Cayla a mandate to find a way or a place for the protesters to express themselves calmly during the festival.
"The festival is the place for the expression of international film talents towards which the rest of the world looks. This is why the festival wishes that everything be done in order that it go on in the best conditions," said Cayla.