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CANNES, France (Reuters) - Light on A-list stars, extravagant parties and celebrity stunts, this year's Cannes film festival has not escaped the global economic downturn.
That, many say, has been a blessing in disguise, allowing thousands of reporters, executives and Hollywood hopefuls in the French Riviera resort to concentrate on the movies themselves rather than the off-screen distractions.
Reaction to the 20-strong competition has been positive as Cannes hit the halfway stage on Monday, with a French prison drama, Jane Campion's take on John Keats and Ken Loach's picture headlined by soccer star Eric Cantona tipped as the early favorites for the coveted Palme d'Or.
And while there has been little buzz along the palm-lined Croisette waterfront, where Cannes' late-night revelry is concentrated, Danish director Lars von Trier has got people talking with a movie that shocked and offended many who saw it.
"Antichrist," a sexually charged and violent horror starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a grieving couple, has stirred the kind of controversy Cannes organizers may welcome.
"Overall it's a good Cannes so far," said film critic and author Mark Cousins, who defended von Trier for making a movie that he found innovative and surprising.
Whether a coincidence or a conscious decision by Hollywood studios to cut back on expensive outlays in Cannes, there have been noticeably fewer stars on the red carpet this year.
"When Mariah Carey is the biggest star by the end of week one, you know you're in trouble," said one seasoned television producer, bemoaning the lack of celebrity wattage.
That said, Brad Pitt is expected with Quentin Tarantino's World War Two film "Inglourious Basterds," and Penelope Cruz is in Cannes for Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces."
Paris Hilton reportedly flew into the festival and "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson appears on Tuesday.
While business on the market has been affected by the financial crisis, deals are still being made, champagne is flowing on board giant yachts moored off the harbor and wannabe directors and actors continue to look for their big break.
"A Prophet," directed by Jacques Audiard, is currently the frontrunner for the Golden Palm for best film awarded at the weekend, raising the possibility of two French winners in two years after "Entre Les Murs" (The Class), triumphed in 2008.
A Prophet stars Tahar Rahim as a young convict who must use his wits to survive in prison where he seeks to play one gang off against another. The film, according to trade publication Variety, "hit the Croisette like a thunderbolt."
Close behind in Screen International's survey of critics is New Zealand-born Campion's "Bright Star," about the affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Campion is still the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or with "The Piano" in 1993.
British film maker Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric" was cheered at a press screening on Monday, and compatriot Andrea Arnold won broad praise for her drama "Fish Tank."
Asian directors Park Chan-Wook ("Thirst"), Johnnie To ("Vengeance") and Lou Ye ("Spring Fever") fared less well.
Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," about the legendary 1969 rock festival, was welcomed for its celebration of innocence, but critics agreed it was too superficial to trouble the jury.
Two films have bombed.
Filipino Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay," about a criminology student who witnesses a brutal rape and torture, drew mostly negative reviews, while von Trier, winner of the Palme d'Or in 2000, had audiences dropping their jaws with Antichrist.
The movie's graphic scenes of sex, violence and self-mutilation drew gasps at a press screening, derisive laughter broke out at key moments and a smattering of applause at the end was drowned out by booing.
Editing by Steve Addison