Cannes 2012: Prize Winners, Pretty Young Stars, Tales of Sex and Violence

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A preview of the influential film festival that kicks off May 16

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Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' (Entertainment One)

Cannes 2011 was a satisfying edition. There were a slew of interesting films, gripping controversies both inside and outside the festival (Lars Von Trier's Nazi-themed press conference, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal exploding in New York), and a wholly deserving Palme d'Or winner (Terrence Malick's Tree of Life).

How could Cannes 2012 top that?

International as it may be, the festival remains a distinctly French-flavored affair (ask anyone who's waited on line with pontificating French film critics or tried to negotiate with a haughty Parisian publicist). With the inauguration of newly elected president François Hollande coming a day before the festival's start, the mood on the Croisette is likely to be electric.

Of course, the most important thing is the cinema. Away from the sun-baked Mediterranean beaches, the ultra-exclusive soirées, the red carpet and the gaggles of exuberant stargazers and dogged paparazzi that line it, Cannes is an experience lived out in the dark. The bottom line is the big, beautiful movie screen and the obsessive film lovers gazing up at it.

This year's competition slate is enticing: a mix of world cinema heavyweights and offbeat auteurs, with a few wild cards thrown in for good measure.

So let's kick off the countdown to Cannes with a closer look at the main selection. Here are three initial observations.

1. A line-up of prize-winners and prodigies

The 2012 crop doesn't feature the trio of Cannes royalty that graced the 2011 roster—Pedro Almodovar, the Dardenne brothers, and Von Trier—but it's a heavily decorated bunch all the same: Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), celebrated Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (The Taste of Cherry), Kitchen Sink king Ken Loach of Britain (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), and Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu have all won the coveted top prize—Mungiu most deservedly, with 2007's superb 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the "abortion movie" that artfully avoided all booby traps typical of films tackling hot-button social issues.

Mungiu's new work, Beyond the Hills, about a religious woman suspected of being possessed, looks like one of the most intriguing entries this year. As for Loach, let's hope The Angel's Share, described as a bittersweet comedy about a thug who opens a whiskey distillery, is better than his mediocre 2010 entry Route Irish.

Many other directors in competition have also seen their fair share of Cannes awards, even if the top honor has eluded them; Frenchman Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), Canadian "body horror" specialist David Cronenberg (Crash), Italian Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), "Korean Woody Allen" aka Hong Sang-soo (Hahaha), American Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), cherished French old-timer Alain Resnais (Wild Grass), Mexican New Wave-r Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light), and Danish "Dogme 95" co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) have all taken home prizes in past years.

Of those filmmakers, Reygadas has one of the most mysterious-looking movies in competition. His film Silent Light, an adultery drama set among Mennonites in Mexico, was at once maddeningly self-conscious and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Reygadas's new film, Post Tenebras Lux, has been described as an experimental, autobiographical exploration of sensations and memories. Sounds a bit like Tree of Life. But whereas Malick offered Brad Pitt and a majestic classical score, Reygadas is unlikely to make such concessions to popular taste.

2. Stories of sex and violence, love and death

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Marion Cotillard in 'Rust and Bone' (France 2 Cinéma)

In addition to Malick's and Von Trier's visions of the beginning and end of the world as we know it, last year's competition featured a striking number of movies about the trials and tribulations of children. This year, the trends seem to be dark, violent stories and romances, as well as a few erotic thrillers bridging the two genres. There's Australian Andrew Dominik's Boston-set crime film Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt; his fellow Aussie John Hillcoat's Lawless, a Prohibition-era period piece about bootlegger gangster brothers (that has a rather ho-hum trailer, see below); and Nichols' Mud, with Matthew McConaughey as a Mississippi fugitive trying to outrun bounty hunters and join his lady love (played by Reese Witherspoon).

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Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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