Robert De Niro, an actor of few words, and a film of hardly any words could prove a perfect match as the Cannes Film Festival prepares to hand out its awards.
Among titles competing for the top prize Sunday at the world's most-prestigious film festival is French director Michel Hazanavicius' silent movie "The Artist," which charmed Cannes audiences with a story about early Hollywood likely to appeal to an actor and filmmaker such as De Niro, who heads the awards jury that also includes Uma Thurman and Jude Law.
Other possible winners of the festival's Palme d'Or include Spaniard Pedro Almodovar's horror thriller "The Skin I Live In," starring Antonio Banderas; American filmmaker Terrence Malick's expansive drama "The Tree of Life," with Brad Pitt; British director Lynne Ramsay's school-violence saga "We Need to Talk About Kevin," featuring Tilda Swinton; and Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's heartwarming immigrant tale "Le Havre."
Hazanavicius, competing at Cannes for the first time, said he has tried to ignore the awards talk swirling about his film, which stars his wife, Berenice Bejo, and Jean Dujardin in the comic melodrama of a silent-era star whose career crumbles in the sound era.
"Some people talk and it's very nice, but I try to stay cool," Hazanavicius said. "It would be an honor to have any prize, but it's an honor to be here. This festival is so prestigious, and this year all the directors are so talented, and the films are so good. It's a good year for the festival. Some years are not so good, but everybody says this year is the perfect year."
The strong lineup includes an unusual entry from Almodovar, the Academy Award-winning director of "Talk to Her" and "All About My Mother," who has won the directing and screenplay prizes at Cannes but never the top award.
"I love the festival, but for a veteran director like me, Cannes can be an enormous trap," Almodovar said. "It is really risky to come ... because there have been times in my career when it's a more interesting, punchy story if a film fails (to win the prize) than if it gets it. I'm a much more interesting story as a loser than if I win a prize, but anyway, I try not to think about these things."
The film is a reunion between Almodovar and Banderas, who rose to stardom in the director's 1980s movies. Almodovar's films often are a mix of sober drama and blissful comedy, but this one casts Banderas as a mad scientist intent on terrible vengeance, and the tale features disturbing images of sexual assault and other violence.
Malick is another past directing winner at Cannes, for "Days of Heaven" in 1979. "The Tree of Life" is only the third film Malick has made since and marks his first trip back to Cannes, this time with a film setting the travails of a family against a cosmic backdrop, stretching from the creation of the universe through the age of dinosaurs to modern times.
Notoriously press-shy, Malick stayed out of sight at Cannes, where his film starring Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain had been eagerly awaited for more than a year. Festival organizers had hoped to premiere "The Tree of Life" last year, but the film was not ready in time.
Malick is uncomfortable with the public trappings that go along with filmmaking, said Pitt, who doubts the director would show up to accept any awards the film might receive.
"I don't want to presume, but I would think not. He's not made for it. It's not his interest," Pitt said. "One of the film's many messages is that it's the experience, it's not the outcome, and I think it would be antithetical to him."
Three of the 20 competing films come from past Palme d'Or recipients — the troubled-youth tale "The Kid with a Bike" from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (two-time Cannes winners for "Rosetta" and "The Child"); the papal saga "Habemus Papam" from Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti ("The Son's Room"); and the end-of-the-world drama "Melancholia" from Danish director Lars von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark").
Cannes organizers kicked von Trier out of the festival after a news conference in which the director said he sympathized with Adolf Hitler, made wisecracks about Jews and quipped that he was a Nazi. Von Trier later apologized and said he had been joking.
"Melancholia," which stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland, remains eligible for prizes, though von Trier is banned from the awards ceremony.
Swinton, an Oscar winner for "Michael Clayton," is considered a front-runner for Cannes' best-actress prize for "We Need to Talk About Kevin," in which she plays the guilt-ridden, grieving mother whose son carried out a school massacre.
A past member of film juries, Swinton said awards make for an aggravating end to the cinema celebration that is Cannes.
"Juries have this rather strange task of giving prizes, but that's never the most important thing," Swinton said. "In my experience you go to see a lot of films and have fantastic conversations with people, and then there's this noxious process where you have to choose."
Associated Press reporters Jenny Barchfield and Jill Lawless contributed to this report.