In the never-ending search for a movie that captures the essence of a film festival, it's probably fitting that Cannes opened Wednesday night with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.
It's Woody's umpteenth return to Cannes - last year he brought You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and before that Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra's Dream, Match Point, Hollywood Ending, and on and on. They could've bought him an apartment, already, across from the red carpet.
Midnight in Paris offers Owen Wilson as Gil, an aspiring writer on vacation with an expense-account wife and her gauche parents.
One midnight after his wife has gone off with one of Allen's stock characters, an intellectual windbag, Gil steps into a cab that is a portal to Paris in the L'age d'or, the Golden Age, of the 20s.
Et voilà, Gil becomes best buds with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda; Ernest Hemingway speaking of men and war; Picasso, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) mixing it up about art; Cole Porter tinkling the ivories; Luis Bunuel and Man Ray looking for direction; plus the old guard of Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, and Degas.
Allen said he cast Wilson and Rachel McAdams despite their pairing as comic lovers in The Wedding Crashers in 2005, and he rounded the film out with French actresses Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux and France's first lady, actress Carla Bruni Sarkozy.
"I learned about Paris from the movies," Allen said at a news conference in the Palais des Festival after the press screening Wednesday. "I didn't go there till I was an adult in 1965. When I was a young man, my friends and I were very influenced by foreign cinema - not just French movies, but Swedish, Italian, Japanese. We really got into it and saw films as art. We all fancied ourselves as artists and not commercial filmmakers."
"I'm a completely lucky filmmaker. Everything I needed came my way," Allen mused. "I have some talent, but it doesn't go as far as being an artist. If you think Bunuel is an artist, then it's as clear as a bell I'm not an artist."
In that sense, his film serves its opening-night mandate to entertain, while underlining the thread that links a lot of the films set for the next 11 days until the festival closes May 22 with The Beloved (Les Bien Ames), a last-century European romantic comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Ludivine Sagnier.
The official Cannes selection includes about 50 films from 30-plus countries, with many coming from established hands. Among them are films already generating headlines: Tree of Life, with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and Unlawful Killing, about the death of Princess Diana.
The list includes past Cannes veterans and Palme d'Or winners: Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, with Antonio Banderas and Marisa Paredes; the Belgian Dardenne Brothers' Boy With a Bike; Italian director Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope) with French acting great Michel Piccoli; Danish bad boy Lars Von Trier with Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Charlotte Rampling; young Dane Nicolas Winding Refn's film Drive, with Ryan Gosling paired up with Carey Mulligan, the it-girl from An Education; the last-minute addition of jailed Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof's Acts of Resistance; plus Gus Van Sant's Restless and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean - not that anyone needs Cannes for that.
Here's an oddity: By the time director Jodi Foster's The Beaver makes its debut Tuesday as a special, it will have already opened in U.S. markets including Philadelphia. It stars Mel Gibson as a depressed toy executive booted out of the house by his wife, played by Foster, only to return with a beaver puppet on his arm who does the talking for him. The film's release in 22 theaters last weekend did small business, possibly because Gibson antagonized segments of his audience.
The Beaver aside, the lineup this year may be "the most exciting one in years, because it contains so many of the hottest filmmakers in the world over the last 10 years who have films in the festival," according to Darryl McDonald, artistic director of the Palm Springs Film Festival, which offers many Oscar-nominated foreign-language films first previewed at Cannes. "Almodovar, Von Trier, the Dardennes, and let's not forget Terence Malick," says McDonald.
It's a coup of sorts that Cannes landed U.S. director Malick's Tree of Life, scheduled for a press screening Monday. It's the 67-year-old director's long-awaited fifth film in a 1950s rural setting. It was supposed to be shown at Cannes last year, until Malick decided that it needed another year to bake.
"That's no surprise given Malick's production history - 20 years between Days of Heaven  and The Thin Red Line  and seven years to The New World  - that this one has taken six," McDonald says. "Malick is a mood and a feeling that sails right through you like no one else. The question is will this be a Terence Malick with heft, like Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line, or will it be one that ends with a whimper like The New World?"
For those who can't wait for an answer, there's always Unlawful Killing, a film that didn't make it into any of the official sections of the festival. Directed by English actor Keith Allen, it's a documentary coproduced by former Harrod's magnate Mohammed Fayed, father of Princess Di's lover, Dodi Fayed, who was killed with her in that tunnel on a midnight in that other Paris, the one that's not in Woody's opening-night movie.
Unlawful Killing, which is banned in Britain in part because it includes photos of Princess Diana's dying moments, is showing in the Cannes Market, where the real rug cutting takes place over international distribution. It is scheduled for Friday, the 13th.