CANNES, France: The Palme d'Or is cinema's answer to the papal conclave.
The top award of the Cannes Film Festival isn't announced by a plume of white smoke, but its deliberations are shrouded in an almost-holy secrecy. While the world's media is consumed by analyzing the merits and Palme chances of each film in the competition, the jury silently files in and out of theaters, their opinions left to pure conjecture.
Whereas Hollywood's long award season often leads to a fairly predictable Academy Awards, the Oscars' European equal in prestige is entirely opaque. No one even knows who the favorites are; it's purely a matter of what the jury led by director Jane Campion responds to.
This year's Palme d'Or winner will be announced in an awards ceremony Saturday night at the culmination of 10 days of movie-going frenzy on the French Riviera.
Of the 18 films competing for the Palme, presumed favorites include the languorous Turkish film "Winter Sleep," the small-town Russian epic "Leviathan" and the French working-class drama "Two Days, One Night." But no one really does know.
"When I was on the jury, people were saying stuff about what we must be thinking and it was nothing like what we were thinking," says David Cronenberg, who presided over the 1999 jury. "'They'd say 'This movie is obviously the front-runner' or 'This actor is obviously the front-runner,' and we weren't thinking those things at all."
That year was one of the biggest surprise winners in the history of Cannes. The Dardenne brothers' "Rosetta" won over the perceived favorite, Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother." ''Rosetta" was the last film to screen during the festival and the Belgian brothers were largely unknown at the time.
"When somebody says your film is number three in the running according to the Irish bookies, it means absolutely nothing," said Cronenberg, speaking before the odds were posted for his Cannes entry, the Hollywood satire "Maps to the Stars."
When he was jury president, he urged other members to avoid reading press reports during the festival.
The then-controversial decision for "Rosetta" has not only been vindicated by history (the widely acclaimed Dardennes won the Palme again in 2005 with "The Child"), but it could be poised for a historic repeat. The Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night," starring Marion Cotillard, could make them the first directors to win the Palme d'Or three times. (Six other directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, have won it twice.)
But many believe the jury will reward the film with best actress for Cotillard. Similar thinking goes that Mike Leigh's biopic of the British painter J.M.W. Turner - "Mr. Turner" - though roundly acclaimed, will be cited for Timothy Spall's leading performance. Still, Bennett Miller's wrestling drama "Foxcatcher," featuring a dramatic turn by Steve Carell, may have a say in that top award.
Oddsmaker Neil Young, who rates Palme chances on his Film Lounge blog, has Nuri Bilge Ceylan's lengthy, philosophizing "Winter Sleep" as the 4-1 favorite. It's trailed by "Leviathan" and "Mommy," a mother-son drama by 25-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan.
Many other films could be in the Palme mix. Perhaps the most raucous film at the festival was "Wild Tales," an Argentine collection of revenge tales. "Timbuktu" drew admiration for its humanistic depiction of life in a Mali village under fundamentalist Taliban rule. And the only thing more difficult than summarizing Jean-Luc Godard's 3-D art-house explosion "Goodbye to Language" might be trying to guess how a jury would rate it.
Winners can often be determined by jury dynamics. When Olivier Assayas was a member of Robert DeNiro's jury in 2001, he was among the advocates for Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." The film became one of Cannes' most celebrated winners.
"A few of us had to fight for it," said Assayas, who's in contention this year with the drama "Clouds of Sils Maria." ''I was proud to be one of the ones supporting that film."
Along with Campion (a Palme-winner for "The Piano," which shared the prize with "Farewell My Concubine"), this year's jury includes Sofia Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Gael Garcia Bernal and others.
There may be one sure thing this year. It can probably be safely assumed that Atom Egoyan's widely panned kidnapping thriller "Captive," starring Ryan Reynolds, won't be winning the Palme.