Tales of love, mobsters, an exorcism gone wrong and a wacky shape-shifter were hot favorites for the Palme d’Or as the Cannes festival jury hunkered down ahead of Sunday night’s award ceremony.
Italian jury head Nanni Moretti and his eight jurors headed into closed-door deliberations Sunday morning in a villa overlooking the Riviera city.
Until they emerge for the awards ceremony at 1715 GMT, the guessing game revolves around spotting which of the 22 world directors racing for the top prize have been asked to remain, or return to Cannes.
Michael Haneke of Austria, who took the Palme d’Or in 2009 for “The White Ribbon”, remained the name most cited as potential prize-winner for “Love”, a wrenching tale of devotion at the bitter end of life.
Snapping at his heels was Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, who made a powerful bid for the Palme with “Beyond the Hills,” the true story of a deadly “exorcism,” after his 2007 win for the abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”
Cannes rumors had it that both Haneke and Mungiu had been called back to the Riviera city by festival organizers, although Mungiu’s agent denied it.
The two pictures jointly headed the pack in Screen International’s daily compilation of ratings by critics, at the end of the 12-day movie marathon that drew A-listers from Nicole Kidman to “Twilight” heart-throb Robert Pattinson.
But the race was still wide open, with films by Australian Andrew Dominik, Britain’s Ken Loach, and Frenchman Jacques Audiard also tipped for a prize -- and the jury free to spring surprises of its own.
A French jury grid compiled by Le Film Francais tipped comeback French director Leos Carax for the top prize for the mind-bendingly experimental “Holy Motors” about a man who slips actor-like from one identity to another.
And U.S. director Jeff Nichols’ Mississippi-set coming-of-age drama “Mud”, about two young boys and a fugitive searching for true love, made a last-minute splash in the race when it premiered to rapturous applause on Saturday.
Audiard’s “Rust and Bone”, the tale of a killer-whale trainer who loses both legs but finds her way back to life with help from a lovable drifter, could win a prize for either its director or its star Marion Cotillard.
In competition for a record 11th time, Loach brought a bittersweet comedy “The Angel’s Share,” a Glasgow-set story about a jobless youth who finds a way out of a dead-end life through a combination of kilts and whisky.
Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” tells of a mob syndicate up against economic hard times, with a humane hitman played by Brad Pitt, star of last year’s Palme winner “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick.
In the best actor category, Carax’s film’s shape-shifter star Denis Lavant plays no fewer than 11 roles, making him a natural contender.
Mads Mikkelsen was searing as a man falsely accused of molesting a child in “The Hunt”, a thriller by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg.
Matthew McConaughey wowed Cannes as the outlaw hero of “Mud”, and Tom Hardy set tongues wagging for another tale of the American South, John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era gangster movie “Lawless”.
But the octogenarian French screen icon Jean-Louis Trintignant was staunch favorite for the actor prize, for his role as a devoted husband caring for his dying wife -- played by Emmanuelle Riva -- in Haneke’s “Love”.
Riva was also tipped as best actress, up against Austria’s Margarethe Tiesel as a 50-year-old sex tourist in Ulrich Seidl’s unflinching “Paradise: Love”.
But Cotillard packed a powerful punch as the amputee star of “Rust and Bone”, while Cosmina Stratan brought a whispered intensity to her role as a young nun in Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.”
Commenting on a simmering row over the absence of female directors in this year’s Cannes line-up, the festival’s veteran chairman Gilles Jacob said in comments published Sunday he was not deaf to the concerns raised.
“I am sure that next year the chief selector, Thierry Fremaux, will look more carefully to find films by women,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.