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Cannes rebounds after lacklustre lineups

Director Terrence Malick generates excitement with latest offering

The Cannes film festival is gearing up for what critics say should be a vintage year, with Hollywood stars out in force, revered directors there in droves and political controversy thrown into the mix.

The world's biggest cinema showcase has suffered from studio cost-cutting and lacklustre lineups in recent years, but news that Terrence Malick's eagerly awaited The Tree of Life is in the main competition has cinephiles licking their lips.

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, French First Lady Carla Bruni and jury president Robert De Niro are among big names expected to walk the red carpet and hit the French Riviera party circuit.

And in addition to Malick, movie lovers can admire the latest works from Pedro Almodovar, two-time Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers, previous Palme d'Or laureates Lars Von Trier and Nanni Moretti and Japan's prolific director Takashi Miike.

"It's the strongest lineup in ages," said Mark Cousins, a film critic and regular Cannes attendee.

"It's Malick that most excites. Some film makers make films about their home town, or their country, but Terrence Malick makes films about what it's like to be alive."

The Tree of Life stars Pitt and Penn in a family saga set in the Midwest during the 1950s. The long wait for its arrival, and a trailer featuring mysterious cosmic scenes, have raised expectations for what is only Malick's fifth feature.

Penn also appears in Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's incompetition This Must Be the Place, in which he portrays a retired rock star who sets out to find his father's executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal living in the United States.

Kicking off the May 11-22 marathon of screenings, press interviews, deal-making and late night revelry in the palm-lined Mediterranean resort will be Woody Allen's romantic comedy Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.

Much of the media's focus is likely to be on former model Bruni, who has a small role in the film and is at the centre of intense speculation in France over whether she is pregnant.

By coincidence, Cannes also includes biopic La Conquete (The Conquest), which portrays Bruni's husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during the 2007 election and the collapse of his previous marriage to Cecilia.

Women feature more prominently in the main competition than usual, although they still only account for four of 20 entries.

Scotland's Lynne Ramsay presents We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel and Australian Julia Leigh directs Sleeping Beauty, described as a "haunting erotic fairy tale."

French actress/director Maiwenn Le Besco has directed Polisse about a photographer who begins an affair with a cop.