Grim Tales at Cannes

Greg and Missey Smith listen to a speaker during a candlelight vigil for their daughter Kelsey Smith at Shawnee Mission West High School, Thursday, June 7, 2007, in Overland Park, Kan. Kelsey, 18, was found dead Wednesday after being abducted from the parking lot of a Target store last Saturday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
The limo-and-luxe extravaganza that is the Cannes Film Festival will feel the chill winds of grim reality this year.

Death, war, disfigurement, bereavement and infidelity are just some of the themes being served up at this most glitzy of European film festivals, which opens today.

Even the Americans, back in force with four films competing for the top prize, are eschewing Hollywood-style happy-enders.

Those with a penchant for pure escapism, however, need not despair: Australian Baz Luhrmann will be putting on the ritz with his song-and-dance film “Moulin Rouge,” which opens the 12-day festival.

The movie, which stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, should set the tone nicely in this party-mad town. Luhrmann, who brought “Strictly Ballroom” to Cannes in 1992, recreates the heady days of late 19th-century Paris at the famed Montmartre cabaret.

“It was an incredible period ... There were bistros everywhere, people drank absinthe, they smoked opium, they invented the French cancan,” Luhrmann told France's Studio magazine.

“Creativity and permissiveness were everywhere.”

The hijinks and high kicks promised by Luhrmann are a universe away from the gut-wrenching musical that snapped up the Palme d'Or last year, Lars Von Trier's “Dancer in the Dark.”

But if Von Trier's world is more your cup of tea, Cannes takes a long look at pain and suffering.

Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf tackles a topical horror — the plight of women in Afghanistan — in “Kandahar.” Bosnia's debut entry, “No Man's Land” by first-time director Danis Tanovic, is set in the Balkan country during the 1992-1995 war.

Sean Penn's “The Pledge” is a bleak whodunit, snubbed by U.S. audiences, although Jack Nicholson's performance as a tormented detective won critical raves.

U.S. Cannes veterans Joel and Ethan Coen are back with a dark tale of infidelity and murder — “The Man Who Wasn't There” — while David Lynch, another Cannes winner, serves up “Mulholland Drive,” a slice of the strange Lynch universe centered on one of Los Angeles' most renowned roads.

If all this seems a little depressing, festival-goers can seek light relief in DreamWorks' “Shrek,” the first animated film selected in competition at Cannes since “The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat” in 1974.

Cartoons ain't what they used to be, and “Shrek,” directed by Victoria Jenson and Andrew Adamson, is being billed for its unique take on traditional fairy tales and for how real its characters look.

Those in need of a little glitter therapy to offset the gloom can also check out the talent on the famous red stairs. Expected are newly separated Kidman, Melanie Griffith, Catherine Deneuve, Benicio Del Toro, Antonio Banderas, Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ethan Hawke.

And there's always people-watching along the frenetic Croisette, with its srutting starlets and posing thespians.

A strong contingent of Asian directors will be making serious designs on the top prizes after a handful of awards last year. Japan's Shohei Imamura, a double Palme winner, and Shinji Aoyama, who won acclaim but no awards last year, both are returning.

Norwegian actress-turned-director Liv Ullmann will head the jury after Jodie Foster dropped out. Other jurors are American Terry Gilliam, French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and Taiwan's Edward Yang, who won the best director prize last year with “Yi Yi.”

Away from the tussle for the top prize, the Coppola family will be making waves. Francis Ford Coppola presents a longer version of his 1979 Vietnam epic, “Apocalypse Now,” while son Roman shows “CQ,” starring Elodie Bouchez and Jeremy Davies.

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