US and France dominate a big-name Cannes Film Festival lineup

We were expecting an all-star lineup for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and that’s pretty much what fest director Thierry Fremaux delivered at this morning’s press conference — though not without a few surprises along the way. Barring later additions, 19 Competition films will vie for the Palme d’Or; among them are such hotly anticipated auteur titles as Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (formerly known as “Lowlife”), Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” and Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Furs.”

But the big names weren’t limited to the Competition; the secondary Un Certain Regard gets a shot of star power in the shape of the indefatigable James Franco, whose latest directorial effort “As I Lay Dying” will unspool there.

Meanwhile, in one of the morning’s most eyebrow-raising announcements, French veteran Claire Denis’s film “The Bastards” — the film I was most hoping would show up on the Croisette — has been restricted to Un Certain Regard. Following yesterday’s announcement that Sofia Coppola would open the section with “The Bling Ring,” that means the two most prominent filmmakers “demoted” (so to speak) to UCR are both female — not a decision that will sit well with many. Still, with six female directors in Un Certain Regard overall, Fremaux is evidently addressing last year’s gender imbalance in some roundabout way.

Still, at least they made the lineup in some capacity: prominent no-shows this year include Ari Folman’s “The Congress,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (which was perhaps always likelier to turn up in Venice), Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Sylvain Chomet’s “Attila Marcel” — several of those among the films I was most hoping to see at the festival. (Not that I’m complaining — this lineup is tasty enough as it is.) 

Unlike last year, however, one woman did make the Competition lineup: Italian actress-turned-filmmaker Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi, whose “A Villa in Italy” is one of a higher-than-usual number of French productions in Competition. (So much for my quota-of-three theory that I used to prove the falseness of yesterday’s “leaked” lineup, though it was indeed a fake.) That group also includes Francois Ozon’s “Jeune et Jolie,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Life of Adele” (formerly titled “Blue is the Warmest Color”) and Arnaud des Palliere’s “Michael Kolhaas.”

The three most prominent French films in Competition, however, are: Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.,” starring Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric; Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” his follow-up to the Oscar-winning “A Separation” and Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” where Amalric pops up again, this time opposite Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner. The former two were widely predicted, and both made my 10 Most Anticipated list. Polanski’s inclusion is more of a surprise; the film is an adaptation of the raunchy Broadway hit that won stage actress Nina Arianda the Best Actress Tony Award last year.

The bulk of media attention, however, will likely be focused on the Competition’s A-list American contingent. the US didn’t fare too well at last year’s festival with the likes of “The Paperboy” and “Lawless”; this year, Fremaux has brought out the big guns. Will jury president Steven Spielberg take an international left turn, or will he be inclined to go with his countrymen? If the latter, he has more than enough to choose from.

There’s much excitement, in particular, around Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which many had speculated wouldn’t be ready in time; the black-and-white father-son drama is Payne’s first Cannes entry since 2002’s “About Schmidt,” and will be looking to match the acclaim and accolades heaped upon 2011’s “The Descendants.”

Also returning to Cannes are the brothers Coen, with their folk music study “Inside Llewyn Davis,” starring Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac; their last Cannes selection, 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” won nothing on the Croisette, but wound up doing okay for itself. There’s also a sweet symmetry to the inclusion of Steven Soderbergh, whose Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” is supposedly his last film before retirement; 24 years ago, he won the Palme d’Or with his debut, “sex, lies and videotape.” (Yes, “Candelabra” is an HBO film, but will be released theatrically in other territories; similarly the channel’s “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” played in Competition in 2004.) 

Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, James Gray’s period drama “The Immigrant” (which has previously gone under the titles “Lowlife” and “Nightingale”) is also in Competition, representing The Weinstein Company’s big hope. No surprise there — far more revered in France than in his home country, Gray has been here with his last three features. Via their new Radius label, The Weinstein Company also has a hand in “Only God Forgives,” Ryan Gosling’s eagerly awaited reunion with director Nicolas Winding Refn.

The Weinsteins also secured the annual, unofficial “Sundance slot” in Un Certain Regard, which has previously gone to such films as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Blue Valentine,” “Precious” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Yesterday’s announcement of a title change for Ryan Coogler’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner “Fruitvale” — now “Fruitvale Station,” if you please — was a heavy clue that it would be the one, and so it is. “Fruitvale Station” will be looking to parlay this extra prestige into serious Oscar buzz, as “Beasts” and “Precious” did; with Harvey at the wheel, don’t bet against it.

Big names also feature in the out-of-competition section. James Gray pops up again with a writing credit on Guillaume Canet’s thriller “Blood Ties,” starring Mila Kunis, Clive Owen and another Cannes double-dipper, Canet’s wife Marion Cotillard. Also bulking out the star quotient is Oscar-nominated “Margin Call” director J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. 

Meanwhile, “Behind the Candelabra” isn’t the only HBO true-life study getting the Cannes treatment: there will be a special screening of Stephen Frears’s “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” starring Christopher Plummer and Danny Glover.

Right, that’s enough to chew on for now — we’ll have plenty more Cannes talk in the next few weeks. On Monday, I launch my annual Cannes Check series, in which we’ll be sizing up a different Competition feature every day. Stay tuned, and check out the full lineup here.