Stars come out to shine for Cannes film festival

With a well-received selection of films, Robert De Niro steering the jury and a galaxy of stars awaited on the Croisette, this year's Cannes film festival is promising to be among the liveliest ever.

The 64th edition of the world's biggest film festival opens Wednesday on the French Riviera with the out-of-competition premiere of Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris".

Twenty pictures, including fresh work from Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Denmark's Lars Von Trier and Belgium's Dardenne brothers, are up for the highly coveted Palme d'Or.

"The films that are selected must really give the feeling that they deserve to be here," festival director Thierry Fremaux told AFP in an interview, explaining how tough it can be to whittle down the selection.

"The festival reflects the state of cinema and in general, the state of cinema speaks to the state of the world."

Since its launch in the aftermath of World War II, Cannes has been a lightning rod for controversy, but this year Fremaux says the official selection is "without a doubt one of the best-received ever".

Oscar-winner De Niro, who starred in past Palme d'Or winners "Taxi Driver" and "The Mission", is steering the jury that includes Hollywood stars Uma Thurman and Jude Law, Hong Kong director Johnny To and film producer Shi Nansun, and French director Olivier Assayas.

A-listers galore -- among them Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Penelope Cruz and Catherine Deneuve -- will meanwhile take turns on the lush red carpet that leads up into the Palais des Festivals.

"Midnight in Paris" is getting special attention not least for one of its bit players: French first lady Carla Bruni, making her film debut as a clipboard-hugging museum staffer.

Seven hundred police officers have been detailed to the festival, where the killing of Osama bin Laden has ramped up security concerns.

"An international event of such a scale with so many personalities, many of them Americans, represents in itself a potential for real risk," a police spokesman said.

In a salute to change in the Middle East, the festival is honouring Egypt as its first "guest country," while a snap documentary of the uprising in Tunisia will be that country's first film in Cannes in 11 years.

Films by convicted Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, made in "semi-clandestine conditions", will meanwhile be screened in the official and Un Certain Regard sections respectively, organisers said Saturday.

Veteran French director Andre Techine will rub shoulders with young and unknown filmmakers under the avant-garde Directors' Fortnight programme.

From Asia, out of competition but produced exclusively for the festival, "Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told" will pay homage to Indian popular cinema.

Also out of competition, and likely to stir controversy, will be "The Conquest" by director Xavier Durringer, a biopic of Nicolas Sarkozy that is the first film ever at Cannes about a serving French president.

Spanish heavyweight Almodovar will present "La Piel Que Habito" (The Skin I Live In) in competition with Antonio Banderas starring.

Von Trier, a Palme d'Or winner in 2000 with "Dancer in the Dark", returns with "Melancholia," while the Dardennes will be gunning for their third Palme d'Or with "Le Gamin au Velo" (The Kid With A Bike).

US director Terrence Malick will present "The Tree of Life", uniting Pitt and Penn on screen, and Israeli director Joseph Cedar will unspool "Hearat Shulayim" (Footnote).

From Japan will be "Ishimei" (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) by Takashi Miike, and "Hanezu no Tsuki" by Naomi Kawase.

The lone British contestant is Lynne Ramsay with "We Need to Talk About Kevin", while from Australia, Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" is one of two first-time films in competition, the other being "Michael" by Austrian film-maker Markus Schleinzer.

Italian cinema legend Bernardo Bertolucci, whose classics include "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor," is to receive an honorary Palme d'Or for his life's work.

Cannes nearly triples in population during the 11-day festival to 200,000, due not only to all the screenings, but also to an international film market where more than 10,000 participants from 101 nations will haggle over the rights to 4,240 films, many of them still in production.

"On the steps, in the parties, in the theatres, Cannes is the place to be," Fremaux said.

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