Ridley Scott’s often confronting new take on the Robin Hood legend kicks off a 12-day celebration of cinema and stardom Wednesday when it opens the Cannes Film Festival.

The epic by the 72-year-old veteran British-born director of films such as Gladiator stars Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe and promises a few graphic Gladiator-style touches in a medieval setting.

In Scott’s film, a relatively modern and somewhat less demure Maid Marian joins Robin Hood in combat against King John’s dark forces while attempting to head off a French invasion of England.

Also making a comeback in Cannes this year is a hero of a rather different sort -- Gordon Gekko, a symbol of 1980s corporate greed.

Having spent the last years cooling his heels in prison on securities fraud, the fictional rogue trader bounces back onto the big screen in US director Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Once again, the 63-year-old Stone has cast Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar in 1988 for his portrayal of Gekko, in the new Wall Street film that has already been slated as one of the highlights in Cannes.

But instead of the avaricious 80s, the new Wall Street drama is being played out against the backdrop of the financial firestorm that has swept the global economy over the last two years.

With his 1987 Wall Street Stone had hoped to blow the lid on the murky and corrupt world he believed lay at the heart of American capitalism.

But the film became a box office success and turned Gordon Gekko into an unlikely hero for many would—be financiers who took to heart his creed that “greed is good.” The movie industry has only slowly begun to emerge from the global financial crisis. But on the eve of the world’s leading film festival this year, the forces of nature also seem to be working against it.

Last week, giant waves swept across Cannes’ palm-lined beachfront boulevard as festival preparations were in full swing. Now volcanic ash from Iceland is threatening to play havoc with flights to the French Riviera.

Eighteen movies from 15 nations are to be screened in competition for Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or (Golden Palm).

These include new movies from directors such as Britain’s Mike Leigh, Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, and China’s Wang Xiaoshuai.

The one US entry in the running for the top prize is Doug Liman’s political thriller Fair Game, based on a true events surrounding attempts by former US president George W Bush to discredit CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Both Robin Hood and Wall Street are to be screened out of the festival’s main competition.

Cannes has been hit by controversy with Rachid Bouchareb’s tale of France’s colonial past in Algeria, Outside of the Law, provoking threats of protests.

Italian Culture Minister Sandro Bondi is meanwhile boycotting the festival over a documentary mocking Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s response to last year’s earthquake in central Italy.

Scandal, however, is very much part of festival life as Cannes gears up to demonstrate its success in drawing together art and money.

“To me there is no other place like Cannes for filmmakers,” said US director Quentin Tarantino, describing the festival as the film business’ Olympics. “During this time on the Riviera, cinema matters,” he said.

Hollywood’s low profile in the main competition does not seem to have made too much of a dent on this year’s festival’s star power.

A slew of A-list celebrities such as Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem are due to appear on the famed red carpet.

Among the films in this year’s battle top honours are maverick Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Loong Boonmee Raluek Chaat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), which was inspired by a Buddhist monk’s sermons.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun will give Chad its first shot at the Palme d’Or with The Screaming Man, while Ukraine is also makes it debut in the prestigious main category with Sergei Loznitsa’s You, My Joy about a troubled Russian truck driver.

Italian director Daniele Luchetti’s La Nostra Vita about a Rome widower looking after his two sons is also one of the films the jury headed by US director Tim Burton will consider when awarding the festival’s major prizes.