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Cannes to present Palme d'Or, with history on the line

Actresses Benedicte Couvreur, from left, Valeria Golino, Noemie Merlant, director Celine Sciamma, actresses Adele Haenel, and Luana Bajrami pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

CANNES, France — History could be made when the top award of the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or, is handed out Saturday.

The Palme d’Or is decided by a nine-person jury, headed this year by the filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu. Their deliberations are done in secret, so what will win is always a guessing game.

But milestone victories could occur if some of the festival’s most acclaimed films were to win. If French director Celine Sciamma’s period love story “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” won, it would be the first time a female filmmaker has won the Palme d’Or outright. Sciamma’s movie, about two women in 18th century France, has been hailed as feminist masterpiece.

The only previous female director to win the prestigious Palme d’Or in the festival’s 72-year history was Jane Campion in 1993 for “The Piano.” She tied with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.” The only other time a woman has won the Palme d’Or was in 2013 when the award for “Blue Is the Warmest Color” was shared between director Abdellatif Kechiche and actresses Leya Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Sciamma is a 40-year-old writer-director who helped found 50/50X2020, France’s version of Time’s Up. She said in an interview that a Palme win for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” would be a larger victory for women.

“It would mean a lot for a lot of people,” she said. “That would be the most important.”

Pedro Almodovar could make personal history by winning the Palme for “Pain and Glory.” Though he’s been one of Europe’s pre-eminent filmmakers for decades, the 69-year-old Spanish director has never won Cannes’ top award despite being in the running five times before. “Pain and Glory,” a self-reflective drama starring Antonio Banderas as a fictionalized version of Almodovar, was received as the filmmaker’s best work in years.

Also in the mix is Bong Joon-ho’s class satire “Parasite,” about a poor family of hustlers who find jobs with a wealthy family. Two years ago, Bong was in Cannes’ competition with “Okja,” a movie distributed in North America by Netflix. After it and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” (also a Netflix release) premiered in Cannes, the festival ruled that all films in competition needed French theatrical distribution. Netflix has since withdrawn from the festival.

A win for “Parasite” would mark the first Korean film to ever win the Palme d’Or.

Last year’s awards in Cannes saw Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” triumph and Italian director Asia Argento declare from the stage: “I was raped by Harvey Weinstein. The festival was his hunting ground.” Weinstein, who has denied sexually assaulting Argento, was for decades a prominent presence in Cannes, which has had its struggles in adapting to the post-MeToo era.

This year, bowing to pressure from 5050×2020, the festival released gender breakdowns of its submissions and selections. Cannes said about 27 per cent of its official selections were directed by women. The 21-film main slate included four films directed by women, which ties the festival’s previous high. Mati Diop, the French-Senegalese director, became the first black woman in competition in Cannes with her feature debut “Atlantics.”

The 72nd Cannes has had its share of red-carpet dazzle, too. Elton John brought his biopic “Rocketman” to the festival, joining star Taron Egerton for a beachside duet after the premiere. And Quentin Tarantino unveiled his 1960s Los Angeles tale “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, 25 years after the director’s “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or.

Tarantino is holding out hope that he might win again. His movie did on Friday win the annual Palme Dog, an award given by critics to the festival’s most memorable canine. Pitt’s character has a loyal pit bull in the film.

“We will see what we will see,” said Tarantino, accepting the award Friday. “But at least I won’t go home empty handed.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press