NEW YORK - An hour's drive down the French Riviera from Formula One's annual Monaco Grand Prix, the Cannes Film Festival is arguably its equal as an endurance test, a high-speed frenzy and, yes, a race course with a checkered flag.
The obstacles in Cannes are a little different: beige-suited guards who dismiss premiere attendees lacking proper shoes or bowties; hordes of star-gazers amassed outside the seaside luxury hotels; movie audiences with famously fiery tastes that can make or break a film's debut; and even fellow filmmakers competing for the festival's prestigious trophy, the Palme d'Or.
"I used to race cars and motorcycles," says director David Cronenberg. "I'm competitive enough that if you put me on the race track, I'm going to want to win. Sure, I would want to win the Palme d'Or."
Cronenberg, the Canadian maker of horrors like "The Fly" and violent dramas like "Eastern Promises," is one of 18 filmmakers in competition at Cannes for the Palme d'Or, a prize that will be selected by a jury headed by director Jane Campion.
Yet Cannes, which opens Wednesday with the premiere of "Grace of Monaco" with Nicole Kidman, is much more than that heightened contest. It's a Cote d'Azur crush of celebrity; the world's largest movie marketplace, where countless films are bought and sold; a sprawling cinema event - the biggest in the world - that encompasses several sidebar fests; and a promotional palace where movies try to capture international attention. But its foundation is the movies in competition.
This year brings a selection somewhat light on Hollywood and perhaps missing some of the year's most anticipated releases (like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," due in December). But it's heavy on world-class auteurs, including Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Mike Leigh and Michel Hazanavicius, returning to where his "The Artist" became a sensation.
Two films come from Americans: the Olympic wrestler drama "Foxcatcher," by Bennett Miller ("Capote") and starring Channing Tatum and Steve Carell; and the Western "The Homesman," the second directing effort from Tommy Lee Jones.
But Americans are edged by three entries from their neighbors to the north, led by Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars," along with Atom Egoyan's "The Captives" and Xavier Dolan's "Mommy."
"For Canadians, we say, 'Hey, this time it's 3 to 2 for Canada over the U.S.' Because of course there's that border friendship-rivalry that we have in all things, not just hockey," says Cronenberg, a former jury president.
Films in competition will bring a bevy of A-listers, including both former "Twilight" co-stars Robert Pattinson (in "Maps to the Stars" and the Aussie outback thriller "The Rover") and Kristen Stewart (in Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria"). Ryan Gosling presents his directorial debut, "Lost River."
For the French director Assayas, premiering in competition in Cannes is "sheer adrenaline."
"Cannes for some reason has its own wave. It's really a matter of chemistry," says Assayas. "You can be extremely proud of the film that you've made and blah blah blah, but you never know how it will interact with the film festival, with the vibe of the festival. You have to cross your fingers."
"Grace of Monaco" kicks off the festival with a curious backstory. Its director, Olivier Dahan, has feuded over the final edit with Harvey Weinstein, who is to release the film in North America. Dahan will premiere his cut in Cannes.
DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, long a Cannes regular, will premiere the animated sequel "How to Train Your Dragon 2," an event that will also fete the 20th anniversary of DreamWorks.
"It's just an amazing platform to be able to promote to the worldwide entertainment media whatever you may have to offer," says Katzenberg. "We love to do that in the biggest, boldest, showmanship way that we can."
There will be no shortage of showmanship at Cannes, which will also feature a lavish party for the latest "Hunger Games" release, "Mockingjay: Part 1," and a promotional event for Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables 3."
But this year's festival appears to lean more toward art than spectacle, which Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard credits to festival director Thierry Fremaux: "This is really his canvas in a way that it's never been."
Bernard and SPC co-founder Michael Barker have been mainstays at Cannes for more than three decades. This year, they bring one of their most robust slates, including "Foxcatcher" and "Mr. Turner." But - like everyone else - they will be on the lookout for moviegoing epiphany.
"What you remember is there are screenings that are such major screenings of major movies in your life," says Barker. "I remember when I saw 'Taste of Cherry,' that Kiarostami directed and won the Palme d'Or, and was just so blown away by the film. Or 'Wings of Desire' for the very first time. That's what you hope for. You hope for that special screening moment where you just go 'Wow.' "
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