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Culture f lock

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am

Last night, the red carpet outside Cannes' Palais des Festivals et des Congres played host to the stellar cast of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and a first-time actress called Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The French first lady, however, was not present. As the Cannes International Film Festival gets into gear in the next few days, that hallowed piece of crimson-coloured ground will see in the likes of Hollywood heavyweights such as Sean Penn, Jodie Foster and Johnny Depp; established master filmmakers such as Terrence Malick, Nanni Moretti and Lars von Trier; and award-winning auteurs like Lynne Ramsay, Naomi Kawase and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. This weekend, there will also be some sheep.

A few of those woolly bleaters will make their first (and probably last) appearances at the festival on Saturday, the festival's general delegate, Thierry Fremaux, says. While unveiling the line-up for this year's festival last month, he said French filmmaker Christian Rouaud had promised to bring along some sheep to the Palais for the premiere of Tous Au Larzac, a documentary that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the start of the Larzac protests, a 10-year popular movement taking aim against then-defence minister Michel Debre's plans to expand a military base near a farming community in southern France. It's now seen as one of the most remarkable victories for grass-roots political activism in French history: socialist Francois Mitterand cancelled the expansion plans as one his first decrees when he was elected president in 1981.

The thought of sheep being herded past the Croisette's seaside palaces is certainly surreal. Then again, grit and glamour have long sat side by side at the Cannes film festival, now in its 64th year.

Joining Tous au Larzac in bringing politics to this year's party is Xavier Durringer's The Conquest, a fictional film revolving around the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy (played by Denis Podalydes) in French politics. While reports suggest the film mocks the man - he's portrayed as an over-ambitious, cantankerous brute - he's also shown emotionally tortured by his unravelling marriage with second wife, Cecilia.

Under Fremaux, the Cannes festival has never shied away from screening controversial films. In 2007, it hosted the premiere of Rebellion: the Litvinenko Case, a documentary that explored what director Andrei Nekrasov saw as the Kremlin-sponsored assassination of Russian spy-turned-dissident Andrei Litvinenko.

Last year, Charles Ferguson's documentary Inside Job - which went on to win an Academy Award - lambasted Wall Street executives for excess and cynicism in what he described as a 'criminal industry'. The most overtly political controversy came before the screening of Rachel Bouchareb's Outside the Law, a fictional feature about the lives of three Algerian brothers as their country fought for independence from France. Nationalists demonstrated in front of the Palais against what they saw as a skewed depiction of the war between the French authorities and the Algerian liberation fighters.

North African politics will again take centre stage this year at Cannes. Paying homage to the so-called Arab Spring sweeping across the Maghreb and the Middle East over the past few months, the festival hosts Mourad Ben Cheikh's documentary No More Fear, a record of the end of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule in Tunisia. Then there's 18 Days, a two-hour portmanteau of 10 short films featuring stories related to the 18-day uprising that forced Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power. The film is part of a programme honouring Egypt, with screenings of two other films from the country: Hussein Kamal's The Postman from 1968, and Sameh Abdel Aziz's new film Ant Scream, which revolves around a man's determination to have the country's president hear his grievances.

For Asia, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh will preside over screenings of Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, his documentary about Kang Khek Iev, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison last year for his role as the director of the notorious Tuol Sleng S-21 prison camp in Phnom Penh during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The festival will also screen Mohammad Rassoulof's Good Bye and Jafar Panahi's documentary This Is Not a Film to honour the two Iranian directors who are now serving six-year jail sentences for dissent against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime.

This year, 20 films will compete for the Palme d'Or, and Fremaux has said his latest selection could be divided into two groups: there are the 'great films' from Cannes regulars whom 'the festival welcomes with open arms', and there's the work of young directors that allows his team to 'take risks'.

Of the former batch, the most anticipated film is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. An epic drama that flits between the modern day and the 1960s, it's a story about a man (played by Sean Penn) whose life is shaped by his childhood in the 1960s, his rite of passage defined by his relationship with his father (played by Brad Pitt).

It's already seen as the odds-on favourite to win the Palme, but hot on its heels are new work by former prize-winners Lars von Trier (Melancholia, about the unravelling bond between two sisters as the earth faces impending doom), Nanni Moretti (Habemus Papam, about a newly-elected Pope and his shrink), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre, about a middle-aged French shoeshiner's friendship with a young illegal immigrant from Africa), Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike, about an angst-ridden 12-year-old's efforts to find the father who abandoned him in a home), Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place, about a rock star's hunt for a Nazi war criminal who inflicted harm on his father) and Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin, about a mother's reflection of her son's murderous shooting spree in his school).

Then there are the younger challengers to the title. Novelist Julia Leigh makes her filmmaking debut with Sleeping Beauty, an adaptation of her own psycho-sexual thriller about a university student who earns money by letting men realise their fantasies on her while she's asleep, while casting director Markus Schleinzer takes a first stab at directing with the drama Michael.

Unsurprisingly, French films are in abundance in competition, including new work by Bertrand Bonello, Alain Cavalier, Maiwenn Le Besco, Michel Hazanavicius and Radu Mihaileanu. Leading the charge for Asia are two productions from Japan: Naomi Kawase's Hanezu No Tsuki, a slow-burning piece about life in a small village near Nara, the director's birthplace, and Takashi Miike's period drama Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the first-ever 3-D film in contention for the festival's top prize.

Korean cinema, meanwhile, is well represented in the festival's 'Un Certain Regard' sidebar, in which new features from Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Na Hong-jin are being screened alongside offerings from Singapore's Eric Khoo (with the animation film Tatsumi) as well as Gus Van Sant, Bruno Dumont and Nadine Labaki.

Chinese-language cinema is having an off-year at Cannes. Flying the flag for Hong Kong is Peter Chan Ho-sun, whose martial arts movie, Wu Xia - which stars Donnie Yen Ji-dan as a retired swordsman forced to return to his vocation after he was implicated for a string of murders - is shown as a midnight screening tomorrow night. The only mainland filmmaker presenting a movie at the festival this year is the Harbin-born fashion-label-owner-turned-director Zou Peng; his second film, an independent production about a Macanese brothel titled Sauna on Moon, is shown at the Critics' Week showcase.

Back on the red-carpeted steps of the Palais, however, the paps will be braying for space for a snap of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, who will appear for the out-of-competition premiere of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean instalment; or Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson, the director and star of family drama The Beaver; or Carey Mulligan and Ryan Reynolds, the leads of Nicolas Winding Refn's in-competition Drive. But who knows, maybe the sheep having their moment in the limelight will be the highlight of this year's proceedings.

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