Iran director's escape, MeToo tensions build off-screen drama at Cannes

Excitement is mounting ahead of the festival (Valery HACHE)
Excitement is mounting ahead of the festival (Valery HACHE)

The escape of an Iranian director and rumours over fresh MeToo allegations were setting the scene Monday for a dramatic Cannes Film Festival, already packed with Hollywood icons and attention-grabbing films.

Stars including Meryl Streep, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Costner and Francis Ford Coppola are among the invitees for the film industry's biggest annual event on the Cote d'Azur, which runs from Tuesday to May 25.

The organisers announced Monday that the Olympic torch will also have its moment on the red carpet on May 21.

In a last-minute twist, director Mohammad Rasoulof -- who is competing for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or -- announced he had escaped from Iran just days after being sentenced to eight years in prison on security offences.

Rasoulof had been under pressure from Iranian authorities to withdraw his latest film, "The Seed of the Sacred Fig", from Cannes.

"I am grateful to my friends, acquaintances, and people who kindly, selflessly, and sometimes by risking their lives, helped me get out of the border and reach a safe place on the difficult and long path of this journey," he wrote on Instagram.

Rasoulof's lawyer Babak Paknia told AFP that the director plans to attend the festival.

That was not the only off-screen drama in the build-up to the festival, which comes at a moment when the French movie business faces a belated reckoning over sexual abuse, with rumours that more alleged abusers may be outed during the event.

Festival director Thierry Fremaux said he was determined to stay out of the debates roiling the industry, especially after the furore around Johnny Depp's appearance in the opening film last year, which drew criticism due to the assault allegations levelled by his ex-wife Amber Heard.

"No controversies come from the festival," Fremaux told reporters on Monday. "We have taken care to ensure that the main reason we're all here is cinema."

The issue is nonetheless in the forefront with a short film premiering Wednesday by actor-director Judith Godreche, a key figure in France's MeToo movement after accusing two directors of sexual abuse when she was a teenager in the 1980s.

She joined a protest of 100-200 people outside the National Centre for Cinema (CNC) in Paris on Monday, calling for its president, Dominique Boutonnat, to resign over sexual assault allegations.

Boutonnat denies the charges and the CNC says it will not act before a trial next month.

There are also worries about a strike call by festival workers, including projectionists and ticketing agents, over pay and conditions.

- Coppola's comeback -

There is plenty of on-screen excitement to come at the festival's 77th edition, too.

The return of "The Godfather" director Coppola with his decades-in-the-making epic "Megalopolis" is the most anticipated of this year's entries for the top prize, the Palme d'Or.

It is one of 22 films competing for the affections of a jury led by "Barbie" director Gerwig, which will announce its verdict on May 25.

Other entries include "The Apprentice", a biopic of Donald Trump's formative years from Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi. It stars Sebastian Stan, known for playing the Winter Soldier in Marvel films.

And "Emilia Perez" has quite the synopsis: a musical about a Mexican cartel boss undergoing a sex change to escape the authorities, directed by France's own Golden Palm winner Jacques Audiard. Pop superstar Selena Gomez appears in a supporting role.

Film fans are also excited for new works from body-horror maestro David Cronenberg ("The Shrouds"), Italy's Paolo Sorrentino ("Parthenope") and Yorgos Lanthimos (reuniting with Emma Stone for "Kinds of Kindness").

Three-time Oscar-winner Streep and "Star Wars" creator George Lucas will receive honorary awards.

And the latest from George Miller's "Mad Max" universe, "Furiosa", starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth, will get its world premiere, playing out of competition, on Wednesday.

On the city's famous seafront Croisette, businesses were preparing for the arrival of some 35,000 festival-goers.

"There's a lot of excitement on the beaches. Restaurant owners are preparing to welcome the VIPs and, in the boutiques, women are checking out evening dresses," said one local, 60-year-old Christine Capao.

er/amz/rox