Tales of love, mobsters, an exorcism gone wrong and a wacky shape-shifter were hot favourites for the Palme d'Or as the Cannes festival jury hunkered down ahead of Sunday night's award ceremony.
Italian jury head Nanni Moretti and his eight jurors were locked inside a villa overlooking the Riviera city for closed-door deliberations, with festival chairman Gilles Jacob tweeting pictures of their talks at regular intervals.
Until they emerge for the awards ceremony at 1715 GMT, the guessing game revolves around spotting which of the 22 world directors racing for the top prize have been asked to remain, or return to Cannes.
Michael Haneke of Austria, who took the Palme d'Or in 2009 for "The White Ribbon", remained the name most cited as potential prize-winner for "Love", a wrenching tale of devotion at the bitter end of life.
His due of octogenarian French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who bowled Cannes over as a devoted and his dying wife in Haneke's "Love", were also hotly tipped for best actor and actress.
Snapping at his heels was Romania's Cristian Mungiu, who made a powerful bid for the Palme with "Beyond the Hills", the true story of a deadly "exorcism", after his 2007 win for the abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days".
Cannes rumours had it that Haneke and his actors and Mungiu had been called back to the Riviera city, though Mungiu's agent denied it.
The two directors jointly headed the pack in Screen International's daily compilation of ratings by critics.
They stand to join a highly select club of two-time Palme laureates, with US director Francis Ford Coppola, Denmark's Bille August, Serbia's Emir Kusturica, Japan's Shohei Imamura and the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
But the race was still wide open at the end of the 12-day movie marathon that drew A-listers from Nicole Kidman to "Twilight" heart-throb Robert Pattinson, with the jury free to spring last-minute surprises.
Among the hot contenders, Mads Mikkelsen was searing as a man falsely accused of molesting a child in "The Hunt", a thriller by Denmark's Thomas Vinterberg, back in Cannes 14 years after his haunting incest drama "Festen."
And US director Jeff Nichols' Mississippi-set coming-of-age drama "Mud", about two young boys and a fugitive searching for true love, made a last-minute splash when it premiered to rapturous applause on Saturday.
A French jury grid compiled by Le Film Francais tipped comeback French director Leos Carax for the top prize for the mind-bendingly experimental "Holy Motors" about a man who slips actor-like from one identity to another.
In competition for a record 11th time, Britain's Ken Loach brought a bittersweet comedy "The Angel's Share," a Glasgow-set story about a jobless youth who finds a way out of a dead-end life through a combination of kilts and whisky.
From Australian Andrew Dominik, "Killing Them Softly" tells of a mob syndicate up against economic hard times, with a humane hitman played by Brad Pitt, star of last year's Palme winner "The Tree of Life" by Terrence Malick.
In the best actor category, Carax's film's shape-shifter star Denis Lavant plays no fewer than 11 roles, making him a natural contender.
Best actress hopefuls were Austria's Margarethe Tiesel as a 50-year-old sex tourist in Ulrich Seidl's unflinching "Paradise: Love", Cotillard as the amputee star of "Rust and Bone" or Cosmina Stratan who brought a whispered intensity to her role as a nun in Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills."
Commenting on a simmering row over the absence of female directors in this year's Cannes line-up, the festival's chairman Jacob said in comments published Sunday he was not deaf to the concerns raised.
"I am sure that next year the chief selector, Thierry Fremaux, will look more carefully to find films by women," he told Britain's Observer newspaper.
Source: AFP Global Edition