As the blitz of films, parties and industry schmoozing started Wednesday, the question was whether the independent movies beloved by Cannes critics could hold their own against "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which plays this weekend.
Cannes' dual nature is apparent to anyone strolling the Croisette, the festival's main drag. On one side is Cannes' official poster: indie filmmaker David Lynch's arty photo of a mysterious blond bombshell. On the other, a hotel facade dressed up for "Indiana Jones" festivities to look something like a plastic temple of doom.
It opened with "Blindness," Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' tale of an epidemic that causes people to lose their vision, starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover, and based on a novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.
While critics pondered the symbolism of "Blindness" in a darkened cinema, paparazzi were hitting the beach to capture Jack Black pulling a publicity stunt for "Kung Fu Panda," DreamWorks' tale of a pudgy panda with a love of martial arts.
Black made a dramatic entrance by boat, then strolled down a pier among 40 people dressed in giant panda suits. Black, who voices the title character, showed off some kung fu moves as the pandas crowded behind him.
"Kung Fu Panda," which has its Cannes premiere Thursday, and "Indiana Jones" aren't competing for prizes. The jury, led by Sean Penn and including Alfonso Cuaron, Natalie Portman and comic book artist-director Marjane Satrapi ("Persepolis"), will hand out awards May 25.
"Blindness," which is up for the top prize, was a departure for Cannes, which usually opens with a movie that's more festive, glitzy or crowd-pleasing. Past openers include "The Da Vinci Code" and "Moulin Rouge."
"To be honest, I still don't think that this is the best film to open the festival," Meirelles joked. He said it was a "big honor" as well as a "big pressure" to launch Cannes.
One highlight of the films vying for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, is Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," a missing-child drama starring Angelina Jolie. Eastwood is a regular at Cannes. He led the jury in 1994 and has showed films including "Mystic River" but has never won the top prize.
Also competing for prizes are James Gray's "Two Lovers," a romantic drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Steven Soderbergh's 4 1/2-hour marathon "Che," starring Benicio Del Toro as Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara.
Dark themes abound as usual in the competition films. Palme d'Or laureates Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who took top honors at the 1999 and 2005 festivals, are back with a gritty drama about an illegal immigrant and her sham marriage, "Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence)."
Israeli writer-director Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" an animated film tackles the subject of war and repressed memories. And Italian film "Gomorra," by director Matteo Garrone, takes on the Naples-based Camorra mob.
On the Net: