By Mike Collett-White
CANNES, France (Reuters) - Comedy will dominate the opening of the Cannes film festival on Wednesday, with Wes Anderson's child fantasy "Moonrise Kingdom" in a tussle with Sacha Baron Cohen's anarchic alter ego General Aladeen for the attention of the world's media.
Thousands of journalists and movie executives are in the glamorous Riviera resort for 12 hectic days of screenings, red carpets, parties and dealmaking, and the first day is typical of the diary clashes they face.
Anderson's film, starring Bruce Willis and Bill Murray, is the official opening entry in the main competition, ensuring a splashy launch with a press screening, news briefing, interviews and red carpet gala premiere on Wednesday evening.
Yet just a short stroll away along the famous palm-lined Croisette waterfront, Baron Cohen will also be muscling in on the action with a press conference of his own at the swanky Carlton Hotel to promote his latest picture "The Dictator".
Judging by his outrageous sense of humor and eye for the theatrical, the British comic may steal much of the limelight as he adopts the character of Aladeen, a cruel North African dictator partly inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.
Amid the pranks and late night parties, however, there is plenty of hard work to be done, with a giant marketplace showcasing hundreds of films and hoping to defy the economic gloom across much of Europe with a spate of sales.
"The economic situation in Europe is not great, but does it mean that we have to forget the dream?" said Thierry Fremaux, general delegate of the festival. "The (economic) crisis is not the crisis of this year," he told Reuters.
"It has been five years that we are in crisis here in Europe," he added, speaking in English. "But we have to manage a way to give the people dreams and to say that even in the 1930s after the big crisis, cinema was in very good shape."
RISING STARS IN SPOTLIGHT
Along the Croisette, last-minute preparations were underway on Tuesday as beach pavilions stocked up with champagne and lobster, promotional posters went up and stages were erected.
Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman are among established Hollywood names expected to grace the red carpet, where they will be joined by a long list of rising stars hoping to make their mark.
Cannes, as the world's biggest and most glamorous film festival, is an ideal platform for a movie and its cast. Silent hit "The Artist", which went on to sweep the Oscars, launched here last year.
But notoriously picky critics can also make life awkward for directors and actors, as with the 2006 world premiere of "The Da Vinci Code" which received poor reviews.
While grumpy cinephiles is an integral part of Cannes, organizers will be keen to avoid a repeat of last year when maverick director Lars Von Trier was controversially expelled for making jokes about Nazis at a press conference.
This year, the festival has come under fire for not including a single female director in its main competition lineup after four were selected in 2011. It has defended its decision, saying it would not impose a "quota policy".
Despite the row, media reaction to this year's lineup has been generally positive.
In the main competition of 22 films, Brazilian director Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road" has generated plenty of buzz, not least because "Twilight" actress Kristen Stewart takes on a leading role.
Best known as Bella Swan from the vampire blockbusters, the 22-year-old American will be joined on the sun-kissed French Riviera by Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson.
The British actor appears in another competition movie "Cosmopolis", directed by Canada's David Cronenberg, a topical tale of corporate greed that follows a successful New York financier whose world disintegrates around him.
John Hillcoat's movie "Lawless", a Depression-era gangster tale, features Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska among others, underlining the importance of fresh acting talent at this year's festival.
Previous winners of the coveted Palme d'Or prize for best film who are in contention again are Austria's Michael Haneke with "Amour" (Love), Iran's Abbas Kiarostami ("Like Someone In Love"), Briton Ken Loach ("The Angels' Share") and Romanian Cristian Mungiu ("Beyond the Hills").
Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and Kidman all star in Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" and Pitt appears in Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly".
Hot topics on the big screen include the Arab uprisings, with Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's "After the Battle" in competition, and the pitfalls of celebrity culture in "Antiviral", the debut feature from Cronenberg's son Brandon.