PARIS - Young directing talent, a battle of Yves Saint Laurent biopics and Kristen Stewart as a rare American nominee are the focus of this year's Cesar awards, France's version of the Oscars.
The award ceremony on Friday night is the highlight of the French movie industry's year in a country still obsessed with cinema.
For the outside world, the spotlight will be on "Twilight" starlet Kristen Stewart, whose best supporting actress nomination for "Clouds of Sils Maria" makes her the first American woman in 30 years to be up for an award at the Cesars.
The best actor category has also lined up an intriguing battle between two portrayals of fashion designer Saint Laurent -- by actors Pierre Niney and Gaspard Ulliel -- after two biopics were released within months of each other last year.
The 40th annual Cesars will be a celebration of young directing talent, with three 30-somethings up for a gong: Thomas Cailley for "Les Combattants", Thomas Lilti for "Hippocrate", and Celine Sciamma for "Bande de filles".
US actor Sean Penn will receive a lifetime achievement award at the ceremony.
He met President Francois Hollande on Thursday where they discussed relief operations in Haiti, with which Penn has been closely involved.
French cinema still evolving
Another film garnering attention this year is "Timbuktu" -- a tale of life under religious extremists in Mali -- which has also been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next month.
The success of young talent is a sign that French cinema is still evolving and staying fresh, said one artistic agent.
"In the US or elsewhere, they don't have a fraction of the renewal that we see here," said Paris-based Elisabeth Tanner, who represents 600 artists.
She pointed to the heavy influence of France's celebrated Femis school of cinema -- which counts 26 former students among this year's Cesar nominees -- but Tanner said their style was moving away from the arthouse tendencies of the past.
"At one time, we had people from Femis who were very cerebral, very introverted, very focused on themselves," said Tanner.
"But today, we are seeing a greater focus on stories."
Cinemas remain in robust health in France, with Paris still bursting with independent cinemas alongside glossier multiplexes.
They sold roughly 210 million tickets last year, up 10 percent on the year before -- boosted by a combination of Hollywood action films as well as homegrown comedies and dramas.
"Young cinema is in good health," said Marc Nicolas, head of the Femis school. "It's not abstract cinema, it's not cinema that copies the cinema of the past.
"We have new generations who are arriving and are ready to do battle." - AFP