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By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Jewel thieves lurking along the French Riviera: what a glamorous, movie-friendly cliche.

It’s a bit of a shock when millions of dollars in diamonds are swiped, at gunpoint, for real. Earlier this month, armed thieves made off with $19 million in jewels from the Cartier boutique located in Cannes. On the other hand, for this French resort city, jewel thefts are nothing new.

So let’s consider it this way. With this latest example of a movie-friendly, true-crime scenario out of the way, the world’s most glittering film festival can officially begin.

Whatever the local crime report, each year the Cannes Film Festival sets the stage for the next year’s worth of international cinema. Here, the right movie at the right moment in history can be launched into the stratosphere and become a reference point of the future. It happened with Pulp Fiction, to name one U.S. prizewinner; a generation earlier, it happened with Taxi Driver.

Often it takes a year or more for a Cannes festival competition title, such as last year’s Clouds of Sils Maria starring Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart, to play theaters or become video-on-demandable in America. Winter Sleep, the winner of last year’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, arrived at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre seven months after Cannes, and like each previous film by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it made a few tens of thousands of dollars at the box office and promptly vanished, except in the memories of those who loved it.

That’s one Cannes, the champion of the auteur. Another side of the festival involves grand populism and rivers of red carpet, yards and yards of it. The most recognizable movie stars on the planet and most of the greatest directors have climbed the photogenic stairs outside the Grand Lumiere Theatre.

This year? In connection with hundreds of competition and out-of-competition titles to be shown in Cannes through May 24, the carpet will host the likes of Amy Poehler (a voice in Pixar’s Inside Out), Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard representing a new Macbeth, Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Catherine Denueve (star of the 2015 festival opener, the French drama Standing Tall).

The choicest news in advance of the festival was longtime festival director Thierry Fremaux getting huffy about stars and their various cohorts clogging up the red carpet by taking pictures of themselves because, well, you know: Cannes. Red carpet. World premiere. South of France.

Nonetheless — enough! “You never look as ugly as you do in a selfie,” reprimanded Fremaux last month at a pre-festival press conference. He called the practice “ridiculous and grotesque.”

Two guys not known to take selfies in public, ever, are Joel and Ethan Coen, frequent Cannes award winners and this year’s jury presidents overseeing the prizes to be awarded May 24 in the 19-film main competition slate.

Some years that slate comprises a healthy percentage of exclusively American and British projects. Not this year. Two U.S. directors are in the running for the Palme this year. Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, Elephant), arriving in Cannes later this week with The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. Carol, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, features Blanchett in what promises to be a swank, icy period picture co-starring Rooney Mara, directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).

There is, however, a larger category of English-language film getting significant play at this year’s festival. A notable number of directors from different countries have shot their latest feature in English, with starry casts that make the business of selling the film to a large number of foreign territories an easier prospect.

This is why John C. Reilly may well end up being the genial unofficial emblem of the 68th festival. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, Reilly appears with Colin Farrell and Lea Seydoux for a futuristic black comedy (I think … I don’t know … I haven’t seen it yet) with a fantastic premise. In the future, according to the director of the rivetingly weird Dogtooth, single people must find a mate within a specific amount of time or else they’re transformed into animals and let loose in the wild.

In another fantasy competing for the Palme, Reilly costars with Salma Hayek and Vincent Cassell. The lavish, lurid Tale of Tales comes from the Italian director Matteo Garrone, whose earlier films Gomorrah (terrific organized crime drama) and Reality (plaintive celebrity-obsession fable) won prizes at Cannes. Garrone and Yorgos Lanthimos are making their English-language debuts with these latest pictures. So is the superb naturalist from Norway, Joachim Trier, whose Louder Than Bombs stars Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne and David Strathairn. The phrase “foreign territories” is essentially dead now, for the record. So many films debuting over the next 12 days at Cannes represent a crazy-quilt arrangement of investment money and distribution interests from so many different nations. “Foreign” has become a word used by fiscal isolationists who don’t get out much, and don’t like to let people in.

All the same, this Cannes promises to be very much in line with the nine previous festival editions I’ve covered, full of fiercely personal and distinctive work that, at best, serves as an antidote to the latest Age of Ultron. Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien, recently the subject of a retrospective at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, presents his first new narrative feature in eight years (The Assassin). China’s Jia Zhangke, another top-flight poet of the medium, has a new one as well, Mountains May Depart.

And speaking of departing: The midnight screening series this year includes the reportedly hardcore sex film Love from French-based Gaspar Noe, whose explicit Enter the Void proved a controversial sensation at Cannes in 2009. The new one’s in 3D, and word is the process will bring festivalgoers within extremely close proximity to the body parts on screen. We’ll see.

And just to balance the scales while asserting the festival’s democratic, egalitarian parameters, the new Pixar movie “Inside Out,” opening commercially in June, will make its world premiere at Cannes May 18.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Pierre le Bigot via Flickr

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