A year ago, Cannes presented a wild mix of big Hollywood tales ("Shrek 2," "Troy," "Dawn of the Dead") and edgy films (Wong Kar-wai's "2046," Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education"), led by the rabble-rousing "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's White House assault which won the festival's top honor.
The schedule looks more subdued this time, though it does not lack for dramatic depth.
The 58th Cannes festival opens Wednesday night with "Lemming," featuring Charlotte Rampling, Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Andre Dussollier in a domestic drama from French director Dominik Moll, who made the hit thriller "With a Friend Like Harry."
The festival's highest profile belongs to the "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," screening outside the main Cannes competition, just days before its May 19 theatrical debut.
"This is the finishing chink to a rather epic adventure that has taken me 30 years to do," "Star Wars" creator George Lucas said. "And apart from `Lord of the Rings,' there isn't anything that's actually an episodic miniseries that is released in theaters, so I think Cannes is kind of celebrating that."
Also playing out of competition is "Match Point," the latest from Allen, whose "Hollywood Ending" opened Cannes in 2002. Departing from his usual Manhattan locales, Allen shot "Match Point" in London with a cast that includes Scarlett Johannson, Emily Mortimer and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Among films in the festival's main competition are Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," starring Viggo Mortensen as a diner owner whose deadly encounter with burglars brings two shady characters (William Hurt and Ed Harris) into his life; Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies," with Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth as an estranged musical-comedy duo whose breakup years earlier is shrouded in mystery; and Van Sant's "Last Days," featuring Michael Pitt in an introspective study of a rock star's final hours, inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain.
During the 12-day festival, the 21 competition films will be dissected, handicapped, championed and trashed by the 4,000 entertainment reporters and photographers attending Cannes.
"It's kind of rough, like people running for office. You get writers that kind of slag you," said Van Sant, whose "Elephant" - inspired by the Columbine school massacre - won the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize, two years ago.
Cannes "is quite violent, and I guess I saw that in `Elephant.' There's also part of me that doesn't really get caught up in it. I also don't get caught up in who wins the World Series. It's the game more than it is who wins. But if you really care, I guess it can be hard."
"Cannes is fabulous. The best platform to launch from," Cronenberg said. "Press and distributors from all over the world come to Cannes, and especially when you're in competition, there's a spotlight on your film. Which is what you want. Then it's up to the film to carry it, because you can't hide after that."
Also in competition are Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's visual extravaganza "Sin City," with Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Jessica Alba in an adaptation of Miller's noirish graphic novels; and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," the directing debut from Tommy Lee Jones, who also stars with Barry Pepper in the story of a Texas ranch foreman on a strange journey to fulfill the last wishes of a slain friend.
Some years bring strong crops of new directors to Cannes, but this year's main competition shapes up as a showcase for experienced hands.
Along with Egoyan, Van Sant and Cronenberg, the competition features such Cannes veterans as von Trier with "Manderlay," his followup to "Dogville" starring Bryce Dallas Howard in the role originated by Nicole Kidman; Wenders with "Don't Come Knocking," featuring Sam Shepard, Sarah Polley and Tim Roth; Jim Jarmusch with "Broken Flowers," starring Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone and Tilda Swinton; Michael Haneke with "Cache," a domestic thriller starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche; Amos Gitai with "Free Zone," starring Natalie Portman in a road-trip drama in the Middle East; and Hou Hsiao-hsien with "Three Times," featuring Qi Shu and Chen Chang in a love story told in three different time periods.
"We are delighted about the return of big names at the top of their art," said festival director Gilles Jacob. "It's not a question of showing all of an auteur's films, but about rifling through the chapters of a body of work, following a simple and tried-and-true principle: It is often the same people who make the best films."
By DAVID GERMAIN