Along with the Mediterranean sea breeze and the aromas wafting from open cafés, there's a distinctive smell of cinema in the air. Massive movie billboards are being constructed outside the grand hotels along the Croisette, and in front of the Palais, the lineup of hundreds of jet-lagged journalists waiting for accreditation snakes out of the building onto the street.
So, what does the sniff test indicate for the Cannes Film Festival this year?
The festival opens with a star-stuffed Shakespearean romp – Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, about runaway 12-year-olds in New England in the 1960s. But the consensus among festival regulars is that it will be tough to follow last year's many triumphs: Terrence Malick's ambitious and strange film The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d'or; the breakout success of eventual Oscar winner The Artist; Woody Allen's biggest box-office hit of his career, Midnight in Paris; as well as the critical successes of The Kid with a Bike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Le Havre, Drive and Melancholia.
There was even a scandal: Lars von Trier, director of Melancholia, created a headline-grabbing controversy with his facetious comments declaring himself a Nazi.
But if this year doesn't have a Tree of Life-sized movie event, it does have films attracting popular buzz. According to the French magazine Premiere, which analyzed comments on Twitter and other social media, the leader so far is Canadian David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, which screens on the final Friday of the festival. Perhaps the presence of Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson – playing a billionaire investor in a high-tech limo en route to a haircut – helped.
Next on the Tweet-list is Rust and Bone by France's Jacques Audiard ( A Prophet), which also has Canadian content: The movie, which screens Thursday, is based on the short-story collection of the same title by Canadian writer Craig Davidson.
Also on the list: the aforementioned Moonrise Kingdom, Jeff Hillcoat's Lawless, starring Shia Labeouf, and The Paperboy, a Florida thriller that promises 44-year-old Nicole Kidman seducing 24-year-old Zac Efron (directed by Lee Daniels ( Precious).
Much, in fact, has been made of the "return of American cinema" this year, with seven of the 22 competition films set in the United States. Four of those films, however, are directed by non-Americans – including Toronto-based Cronenberg, Australian Hillcoat, New Zealander Andrew Dominik ( Killing Them Softly) and Brazilian Walter Salles ( On the Road). Among American filmmakers making films in their own country, there's only Anderson, Daniels and Jeff Nichols ( Take Shelter) with his fugitive thriller Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.
Part of the Cannes guessing game involves analyzing the screening schedule as well as the films. Rust and Bone, screening on the first Thursday, is in a high-profile position. And the second week is stacked with English-language entries – Killing Them Softly on Tuesday, On the Road on Wednesday, The Paperboy on Thursday and Cronenberg's Cosmopolis providing the climactic conclusion to the festival on Friday.
Of course, the Cannes film jury, led this year by Italy's Nanni Moretti, has also selected films from cinema's pantheon of greats. While there are no first-time directors or women on the slate this year, there are several previous Palme d'or winners: Michael Haneke, Ken Loach (who has a record 11 nominations), Abbas Kiarostami and Cristian Mungiu. Other returning directors include France's 89-year-old Alain Resnais and Korea's Hong Sang-Soo.
There's little doubt that the savvy Cannes programmers will have dropped a few surprises into the mix too. Topical political films often grab the spotlight here, and with the left-wing Moretti running a jury that also includes Palestinian actress-director Hiam Abbas, that could bode well for Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's After the Battle, a film about an Egyptian horseman hired to attack protesters in Tahrir Square and later socially disgraced. This is the first Egyptian film in competition since 1985.
For this year's dose of scandal, we have Austria's poet of the grotesque, Ulrich Seidl ( Dog Days, Import Export). He's offering Paradise: Love, the first of a promised trilogy about older female sex tourists, starting with the story of a "sugar mama" who hits the beaches of Kenya looking for thrills.
The quest for paradise might even be seen as a metaphor for a film festival on the beaches of Cannes, where the quest for cinematic fulfilment can be managed with only the risk of eye strain and a sore derriere from watching 12 days of screenings.