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Cannes jury president Robert De Niro waves as he stands on a balcony next to jury members Jude Law and Uma Thurman at the Martinez Hotel in Cannes, on Tuesday.Reuters

Will you still need me now that I'm 64?

The 64th Cannes Film Festival opens on Wednesday, and the answer seems to be a resounding yes. As the billboards are put up and souvenir shops roll up their shutters along the famed Croisette, things are looking up at the world's most famous film festival after a couple of dire years.

With the economic pendulum swinging back, there's an estimated 10-per-cent increase in the market attendance, lots of Hollywood stars on hand - and some new directions in the film programs.

Among the changes, the festival will see a record four women directors in competition and more emphasis on genre films.

There will also be some political agitation, including a controversial documentary about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, called Unlawful Killing (which includes graphic shots of her just before her death), and a satire about the rise to power of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, La Conquête (The Conquest).

As well, there are two last-minute additions to the official selection by Iranian directors: Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film and Mohammad Rasoulof's Goodbye. Last year, both filmmakers were sentenced to six-year prison sentences and 20-year bans on making films, but, in defiance, they secretly made their films and managed to get them out of Iran.

The festival opens on Wednesday evening with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, featuring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard and the French first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. On Saturday, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp will walk the red carpet for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Both premieres, which are out-of-competition, help to launch films that are coming to theatres in the next few weeks.

But the real excitement among cinephiles is Monday's screening of Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, a Texas-set fifties period piece starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, which has been the subject of fervent speculation since it was announced in 2005. The film is only the fifth feature from the reclusive Malick, who won the directing prize at Cannes for Days of Heaven.

Malick's film will be one of 20 films in competition, including The Kid with a Bike from two-time Palme d'Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Lars von Trier's end-of-the-world drama Melancholia, Pedro Almodovar's horror-thriller The Skin I Live In and movies from Cannes veterans Nanni Moretti, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Aki Kaurismaki and Alain Cavalier.

And, finally, some women directors.

Four years ago, Cannes assembled 35 directors to celebrate its 60th anniversary. The group included only one woman, Jane Campion, who won the Palme d'Or in 1993 for The Piano. At the time, she said she was used to being the only girl in the boys' club. That may be changing. This year's festival is front-loaded with women's films.

Campion is back in a producing role for Thursday's Sleeping Beauty. The first film by Aussie novelist Julia Leigh ( The Hunter) - one of three first-time directors in competition - is about a student ( Sucker Punch's Emily Browning) engaged in a form of prostitution in which she sleeps, drugged, in a "sleeping beauty chamber."

Screening the same day is We Have to Talk About Kevin from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay ( Ratcatcher). Based on Lionel Shriver's novel about the parents of a boy who has committed a school massacre, the film stars Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly.

On Friday, the festival will show Polisse, a drama by Luc Besson's former girlfriend Maïwenn Le Besco, about the relationship between a policeman involved in child-protection cases and a woman photographer.

And on Wednesday, the festival will show Hanezu No Tsuki - the untranslatable title refers to an ancient Japanese word for a shade of red - from Japan's Naomi Kawase, who won the runner-up Grand Prize at Cannes in 2007 for The Mourning Forest. Developed through improvisation, in a series of single-take scenes, the film is about contemporary people living in the shadow of the ancient past.

Another trend at Cannes, under artistic director Thierry Frémaux, has been an increased emphasis on the continuity between auteur and genre films. Frémaux has already brought such films as Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy (2004) and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007) to the festival. This year, we have Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, a Los Angeles-set car-chase thriller starring Ryan Gosling, and Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the festival's first 3-D entry, which will see cinephiles in glasses ducking from bloodshed and samurai swords.

Although The Tree of Life is the only American film in competition this year, the festival seems to have a penchant for U.S.-set films shot by foreign directors: This year's examples include We Have to Talk About Kevin, Melancholia, Drive and Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a Nazi-hunting retired Goth rocker (giving Penn a second starring role at Cannes).

Meanwhile, the Un Certain Regard sidebar has been given a long-promised upgrade and now looks increasingly like the home of specialized auteur cinema. This year opens with former Palme d'Or-winner Gus Van Sant's Restless, starring Mia Wasikowska as a terminally ill teenager. The sidebar will also include a new film from France's self-styled "atheist mystic," Bruno Dumont ( L'Humanité) called Out of Satan, as well as new films from celebrated Korean auteurs Hong Sang-soo ( The Day He Arrives) and Kim Ki-duck ( Arirang).