CANNES, France - Billed at the outset as a showdown between big-name auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee and Lars von Trier, the Cannes Film Festival is nearing its end with lesser-known filmmakers among the favourites to win the Palme d'Or, the event's top prize.

Two French films, Jacques Audiard's prison saga "A Prophet" and Xavier Giannoli's ex-con tale "In the Beginning," had warm receptions and could bring France its second-straight festival triumph.

Laurent Cantet's school drama, "The Class," won last year. Before that, a French film had not won at Cannes since 1987.

Cannes prizes will be announced Sunday, the festival's closing day.

Audiard and Giannoli each present stories centring on a small-time crook expanding into more ambitious enterprises, and both films feature front-runner performances for the festival's best-actor award.

"A Prophet" casts newcomer Tahar Rahim as an inmate who arrives in prison an illiterate thug and applies his wiles to become a player in drug and smuggling circles.

Veteran actor Francois Cluzet stars in "In the Beginning," playing a newly released criminal whose petty cons and forgeries lead him into an elaborate shell game as overseer of a construction project.

Also in the running for Cannes honours are Austrian Michael Haneke for "The White Ribbon," a sombre study of a troubled German village on the eve of the First World War, and British director Andrea Arnold for "Fish Tank," a portrait of a bold teenager stuck in a dreary working-class home life.

Palestinian Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains," a semi-autobiographical love letter to his parents that chronicles the family's experiences under Israeli occupation since 1948, is also among the favourites.

Cannes critics have been keeping scorecards on the 20 films in the main competition since the festival opened May 13, trying to anticipate which might find favour with the nine-member jury headed by French actress Isabelle Huppert. The jury also includes actresses Robin Wright Penn and Asia Argento, director James Gray and author Hanif Kureishi.

But Tarantino -- winner of the 1994 Palme d'Or for "Pulp Fiction and in competition again with his Second World War epic "Inglourious Basterds" -- said that when it comes to predicting festival winners, "nobody knows anything."

"The buzz going about this movie or that movie doesn't mean nothing," said Tarantino, who headed the Cannes jury that awarded the top prize to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004.

"The critics, what they say ... it means nothing, because the jury doesn't know the buzz," he said. "The jury doesn't read the reviews. They're sequestered together. They only know their points of view, and they've talked about their points of view so much that that's all that's in their head."

The competition also includes Lee's "Taking Woodstock," a loving flashback to the 1969 rock concert, and Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," with Penelope Cruz in a comic drama about a doomed love affair.

Besides Tarantino, the festival has three other past Cannes winners competing again, including von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark") for "Antichrist," a savage drama about a grieving couple that was greeted with repugnance by much of the Cannes crowd for its scenes of explicit torture and mutilation.

The others are Jane Campion, past winner for "The Piano," for "Bright Star," her historical pageant about the tragic love affair of British poet John Keats; and Ken Loach ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley") for "Looking for Eric," a big-hearted comedy about a mailman who sets his disordered life aright with a little help from his friends, including soccer hero Eric Cantona as his imaginary self-help sage.

Cantona was typically philosophical about the awards prospects for the movie.

"We love the film, and if we win something, we will not love it more," Cantona said. "If we don't win anything, we will not love it less. We just love it as it is. But Cannes is one of the biggest film festivals in the world, and we are very proud to be here. And we are competitors. Competitors like to win, of course."