CANNES, France (Reuters) - Hollywood comes to France Wednesday for the premiere of Woody Allen's romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris," the opening film at this year's Cannes film festival which critics expect to be the best in a long time.
The world's biggest cinema showcase, which ends on May 22, boasts an impressive roll call of major screen stars, revered "auteur" directors and relative newcomers, raising expectations among a 4,000-strong press pack in the glamorous Riviera resort.
Gleaming luxury yachts pack the harbor around the giant cinema complex, five-star hotels are filling up with the rich and famous and Cannes organizers are hoping the 2011 edition lives up to its billing.
"What is exciting this year is ... this clash between established talent and young discoveries, and that is perhaps the heart of the Cannes mission," festival general delegate Thierry Fremaux told Reuters.
But he added a note of caution: "The risk is seeing people make up their minds about the festival after only three days."
Allen's romantic comedy stars Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard as well as French first lady Carla Bruni.
Tuesday, Bruni announced she had canceled an appearance in Cannes because of "personal reasons," feeding widespread rumors in the French press that she may be pregnant.
Nonetheless, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Penelope Cruz, Robert De Niro, Mel Gibson and Johnny Depp are all likely to walk the red carpet, ensuring intense media interest and large crowds of fans catching a glimpse of their screen idols.
They will be joined by darlings of the European festival circuit -- Pedro Almodovar, Nanni Moretti, the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier -- who are all vying for the coveted Palme d'Or prize for best picture.
So is U.S. veteran Terrence Malick, back in the limelight with only his fifth feature, the eagerly anticipated "The Tree of Life" in which Pitt and Penn star in a family saga set in the American Midwest during the 1950s.
Women directors 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 Maiwenn Le Besco brings "Polisse," about a photographer who has an affair with a policeman, and Japan's Naomi Kawase presents "Hanezu No Tsuki," four years after her "The Mourning Forest" won the runner-up Grand Prix award in 2007.
Belgium's Dardenne brothers have a chance to become the first directors to scoop the Palme d'Or three times with "The Kid With A Bike" and festival favorite Almodovar will aim to lift his first Golden Palm with "The Skin I Live In."
Denmark's Von Trier is in competition with "Melancholia," starring Kirsten Dunst as a bride celebrating her marriage as a planet threatens to collide with Earth.
Cannes features blockbuster sequels "Kung Fu Panda 2" starring Jolie and Jack Black, and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" with Depp and Cruz.
And politics will also play its part in the festival, chiefly with "La Conquete" (The Conquest), a biopic about French President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election win and the collapse of his previous marriage to Cecilia.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Louise Ireland