Top directors battle it out in Cannes

PARIS: The Cannes party-scene may be a leaner, meaner affair in this year of economic crisis, but all-out warfare looms on the movie front as the globe's hottest directors, from Ang Lee to Quentin Tarantino, battle for the festival trophy.

"All the great names of world cinema are here," said festival director Thierry Fremaux as a galaxy of stars geared up for the movie industry's biggest annual binge to kick off Wednesday on the palm-fringed Cannes beachfront.

From "Brokeback Mountain" Oscar-winner Lee, to veteran "New Wave" icon Alain Resnais, at a ripe 86 back behind a camera, 20 of the world's grandest film-makers are competing to take home the coveted Palme d'Or on May 24.

Cannes 2009, said movie magazine Variety, will see the festival's "biggest heavyweight auteur smackdown in recent years".

As the countdown began to the 12-day frenzy of screenings, partying and wheeling and dealing, festival organisers said despite the crisis, scheduled attendance seemed on par with previous years -- 4,000 press, 10,000 movie types.

But behind the scenes, everyday services from caterers to hairdressers see belt-tightening in the air as players cut back on champagne and extras.

"Companies are sending fewer people, for shorter periods," said Michel Chevillon, head of the city's hotel association. "We're experiencing an unprecedented world crisis, it's also affecting the Riviera and Cannes." Among top-notch directors jetting in are four previous Palme winners -- Tarantino, Jane Campion, Lars Von Trier and Ken Loach -- who will line up with Pedro Almodovar, Johnnie To, Marco Bellochio, Elia Suleiman, Lou Ye and Park Chan-wook.

Every one of the score of contenders has screened in Cannes before, with the "newest" kid on the block 48-year-old Briton Andrea Arnold, one of just three women up for the prestigious trophy.

The global economy may be in letdown mode, but the world's premier movie showcase has rarely looked so vibrant.

The mega-yachts are at hand and palaces along the seafront are booked out for A-listers like Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Jude Law.

In Paris fashion houses, Dior's John Galliano and Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld are scrambling to drape Charlize Theron, Eva Green, Asia Argento or Robin Wright Penn.

The last two are part of the glammed-up 2009 jury headed by French star Isabelle Huppert that will award the prized Palme at the gala close of the world's biggest media event after the Olympic Games.

Adding a new chapter to its history, the festival on Wednesday kicks off for the first time with a 3D animation -- Disney-Pixar's "Up" -- foisting goofy glasses on the glitzy VIPs rolling up for the red-carpet opener.

"We are happy to have 3D open Cannes, as it is one of cinema's upcoming adventures," said Fremaux.

The past too will be in focus at the festival, with a slew of movies taking a reflective look back into time.

Italy's Bellochio spotlights Mussolini's secret son, Austria's Michael Haneke zeros in on Nazism in the classroom, and Tarantino's "The Inglourious Basterds" (sic) also is set during World War II.

Closer to contemporary times, Lee takes a humorous look at the 1960s Woodstock festival, Suleiman offers a Palestinian family saga, while in an out-of-competition movie, Anne Aghion's "My Neighbour, My Killer" recounts the chilling aftermath of the Rwanda genocide.

The yearly filmfest rarely goes by without an outcry of sorts. This year's might spring from a torrid tale of love by banned Chinese film-maker Lou Ye or an Iranian movie on the underground rap scene in Tehran.

The late Heath Ledger's unfinished stint in Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", being screened out of competition, is also guaranteed to create a festival buzz.

And movie buffs and critics keenly await a new indie film by veteran Francis Ford Coppola, being screened on the sidelines after failing to be selected for the Palme.

"We made a formal offer to Francis Coppola to present his film out-of-competition," said Fremaux. "He declined because he wanted to be in the competition."