For even those most accustomed to the frenzy of celebrity, the Cannes Film Festival can be a disorienting experience.
For 12 days every year, the French Rivera resort town turns into one giant seaside swirl of glamour, high art and backroom deal-making. Like some sun-drenched phantasm, all of cinema comes alive in Cannes: its serious ambitions, bottom-line commerce and crass spectacle.
"Every time I go to Cannes, it feels like I'm entering the helicopter scene in 'La Dolce Vita,'" says Leonardo DiCaprio. "It's an insane experience. The entire town is turned into a red carpet. Every hotel is a premiere. But at the same time, it is the mecca for the world to celebrate filmmaking and bold filmmaking."
This year's Cannes, the 66th, kicks off Wednesday with Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," a 3-D extravaganza starring DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. In many ways, the movie's lavish, star-powered decadence epitomizes Cannes.
But by the time Luhrmann and his cast stroll down the Croisette, "The Great Gatsby" will have already opened in North America. Such a move by the widely respected Cannes artistic director Terry Fremaux has suggested to some perhaps a modicum of atypical desperation to lure a big, flashy film with some artistic ambitions (not always an easy thing to find these days). But it also highlights Cannes' loyalty to its favorites: Luhrmann's debut, "Strictly Ballroom," premiered at Cannes, and his "Moulin Rouge" was also a fest opener.
Cannes remains the grandest platform for filmmakers who want to be considered among the world's elite. For studios, it's an opportunity to globally promote some of their most prized films. This year, there's a finely curated buffet of both varieties.
Several films expected to have a big presence come Oscar season will premiere at Cannes, including Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," a film starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father-son pair on a road trip. And few can top Ryan Gosling as a star attraction: His second collaboration with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive"), the Bangkok noir "Only God Forgives," promises to be one of the most thrillingly violent films at the festival.
Much of the world's attention will be focused on the 20 films competing for the prestigious Palme d'Or, which last year went to Michael Hanekes "Amour," also a best-picture nominee at the Oscars.
The in-competition films are a typically international group, including films from Chad (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "Grigris"), China (Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin") and Japan (Hirokazu Koreeda's "Like Father, Like Son").
Many Palme d'Or winners are returning, including the Coen brothers (1991's "Barton Fink"), Roman Polanski (2002's "The Pianist") and Steven Soderbergh (1989's "sex, lies and videotape"). Joel and Ethan Coen will debut "Llewyn Davis," a 1960s period film about the Greenwich Village folk scene. Polanski will premiere "Venus in Fur," a French-language adaptation of the David Ives play. Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra" will screen shortly before airing on HBO. It stars Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson.
Soderbergh initially declined a spot in competition, preferring to leave a space for a young filmmaker in need of exposure. Fremaux called him a week before announcing the lineup and said that, having seen everything, "Behind the Candelabra" deserved to be in competition.
"The prism through which a movie is viewed when it's in competition is very different than when it's not in competition," says Soderbergh. "And I wanted to have fun. I didn't want to feel that pressure. But I don't really care now. I'm going to have fun no matter what, I've decided."
The "Out of Sight" and "Magic Mike" director says "Behind the Candelabra" is his last feature film, at least for a time. So Soderbergh's film career, effectively launched at Cannes in 1989, will conclude there 24 years later.
Presiding over the jury that will choose the Palme d'Or winner is Steven Spielberg, who hasn't had a film at Cannes in decades. (His "Sugarland Express" and "E.T." both premiered at Cannes.) Speculators predict that Spielberg will either gravitate to the warm-hearted tales he's best known for, or seek to prove his more hifalutin bona fides with a more unconventional choice. (Of course, there's always the chance that he'll simply try to pick the best movie.)
But the hot house atmosphere of Cannes can obscure reactions. Films in competition are greeted with hopes, even expectations, of being a masterpiece. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is running a series throughout May titled "Booed at Cannes," with films like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (it still won the Palme) and Francois Truffaut's "The Soft Skin."
Passion for movies, whether positive or negative, runs deep at Cannes. Sofia Coppola (last at Cannes with the polarizing "Marie Antoinette") has experienced both sides. This year, she leads a particularly strong Un Certain Regard sidebar with "The Bling Ring," a film about star-worshipping California teenagers who burglarize celebrity homes.
There's also J.C. Chandor's follow-up to his acclaimed debut "Margin Call," ''All Is Lost," starring Robert Redford in a dialogue-less performance. And the industrious James Franco will premiere his Faulkner adaptation, "As I Lay Dying."
Several notable directors will present films not in their native tongues. Regarded a possible Palme d'Or favorite, the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning "A Separation") brings the French-language "Le Passe, starring Berenice Bejo ("The Artist"). Out of competition, French actor-director Guillaume Canet makes his English language debut with "Blood Ties," a New York crime film starring Clive Owen and Billy Crudup.
For much of Hollywood and the film world, Cannes is most importantly a marketplace — the biggest in the industry — where casts are assembled, financing is sought and distribution deals pursued. Last year during the festival, director James Toback documented the behind-the-scenes process as he and Alec Baldwin shuttled around hotels and yachts pitching a film.
The documentary, "Seduced and Abandoned," will premiere (where else?) at this year's festival.
"It's easily the most hyperbolical and glitzily exciting festival to be at," says Toback. "There's a perfect balance between the business of movies and the making of movies. You're surrounded by every sort of person that you're likely to come up against in your film career. And you have a beautiful backdrop visually with a great sense of history on the Riviera."
"Making this film there was almost inevitable," he says. "I don't know what other festival I could have made it at."