CANNES, France (Reuters) - France could be heading for a rare double at the Cannes film festival, with Jacques Audiard's powerful prison drama "A Prophet" narrow favorite to win the coveted Palme d'Or at an awards ceremony on Sunday.
The host nation triumphed in 2008 with "The Class," and "A Prophet "shows Audiard to be the biggest beast in new French cinema," according to the Guardian's film critic Peter Bradshaw.
Yet with two of 20 competition films yet to be screened, and as the Riviera resort winds down 10 days into the 12-day movie marathon, the is no runaway contender as in 2007 and 2008.
Any one of eight or more movies could win, critics say, in a year where expectations of a classic Cannes based on the roll call of revered directors selected did not quite match the reality of what made it to the big screen.
New Zealand-born Jane Campion, who won the Golden Palm in 1993 with "The Piano," is a frontrunner with her biopic of John Keats and Fanny Brawne in "Bright Star" as is Spain's Pedro Almodovar and his "Broken Embraces" starring Penelope Cruz.
Austrian Michael Haneke won rave reviews for his eerie and thought-provoking "The White Ribbon," Italian entry "Vincere" about Mussolini was broadly popular and Ken Loach, winner in 2006, won cheers with his upbeat and touching "Looking for Eric" featuring soccer star Eric Cantona.
Two more French pictures -- the whimsical "Wild Grass" by Alain Resnais and "In the Beginning" by Xavier Giannoli -- would prove popular winners for many.
And even "Antichrist," Lars von Trier's controversial movie featuring scenes of graphic sex and genital self-mutilation, is seen as an outside bet even though it offended and angered many who watched it.
Among the biggest critical flops of 2009 were by Asian directors, including Filipino Brillante Mendoza's grisly murder story "Kinatay" and China's Lou Ye, who made "Spring Fever" in defiance of an official five-year film making ban.
And Taiwanese Oscar winner Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," based on the true story of how the legendary 1969 rock concert came to pass, scored poorly in Screen International's informal poll of international critics.
Quentin Tarantino's eagerly-anticipated World War Two caper "Inglourious Basterds" featuring Brad Pitt sharply divided audiences, although its ability to attract some of Hollywood's biggest stars to the red carpet was welcome news for the media.
A-listers were conspicuous by their absence along the palm-lined Croisette this year, both because of the films selected in competition and studios spending less lavishly during the economic slowdown.
Pitt was joined by partner Angelina Jolie at the world premiere of Tarantino's film, and they both attended the launch party afterwards, but there was less late-night revelry for which Cannes is renowned than in recent years.
"The stars just aren't there and the studios are spending a lot less on parties. A lot less," said one industry publicist.
Out of competition, Terry Gilliam presented "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the late Australian actor Heath Ledger's last performance, Disney brought 3D animation "Up" which won rave reviews and singer Mariah Carey promoted "Precious."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
To read more about our entertainment news, visit our blog "Fan Fare" online at blogs.reuters.com/fanfare