As in "As I Lay Dying," Franco has been modest enough to cast himself in a supporting role. Instead, it's little-known actor Scott Haze (also featured in "Dying," along with co-star Tim Blake Nelson) who stars as Lester Ballard, a social outcast in rural Tennessee whose personal and economic disenfranchisement descends to hellish levels of sin and degradation. It's one of McCarthy's bleakest visions (and yes, that's saying something) and not one of his more cinematically friendly, so Franco has his work cut out for him. He co-wrote the screenplay with actor-producer Vince Jolivette, with whom he also collaborated on his avant-garde but sketchy Sal Mineo biopic "Sal" -- which, as it happens, premiered in a Venice sidebar two years ago. Color me curious (again), but not overly optimistic.    

"Stray Dogs," directed by Tsai Ming-liang: It's been four years since Taiwanese-Malaysian auteur Tsai, a defiantly individual stylist to say the least, debuted his last feature, "Face," at Cannes; opalescently elusive and beautiful, the film proved decidedly distributor-averse. It was a long way removed from the wistful, humane pleasures of his 1994 breakthrough film "Vive l'amour," which won the Golden Lion at Venice; he has since returned to the Lido with "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" and "Goodbye, Dragon Inn."

"Stray Dogs" sounds like it may be a return to more accessible territory, at least by Tsai's enigmatic standards. Explores his pet themes of social alienation and marginalization, the film centers on a young, homeless brother and sister, and their struggle to survive on the outskirts of Taipei with their father, who works as a human billboard. Lest you be imagining Ken Loach-style urban miserablism, it sounds like Tsai's mysterious wooziness is still very much at play here. Expect little dialogue, some rapturous imagery and a lump in your throat. If the director is on his best film, this could well be among the jury's favorites.

"Jealousy," directed by Philippe Garrel: Venice programmers remain steadfastly devoted to Garrel, but reader, I cannot lie: I walked out of his last film, "A Burning Hot Summer," two years ago, and nothing has made me regret it since. A dull, muggy assemblage of trysts and tiffs between a selection of predictably languorous bohemians, it found the 65-year-old Frenchman some way off the form of 2005's Silver Lion-winning "Regular Lovers" -- itself something of an acquired taste. I'm willing to forgive and forget, though on paper, "Jealousy" sounds alarmingly like Garrel-by-numbers. Again starring his son Louis, it tells the story of a theater actor caught between two lovers: one the mother of his child, the other an unfaithful, washed-up actress. I have a feeling I know how this is going to go, but I'll try stay the course this time.

"The Rooftop," directed by Merzak Allouache: Like Garrel, 68-year-old Algerian director is one of the elder statesmen of the Competition, though he's a less familiar presence: it's his first time vying for the Golden Lion, and I confess I'm not well acquainted with his work. In his latest, the director professes to explore the troubled underbelly of Algeria after emerging from a decade of terrorism. The ensemble drama interweaves five narratives -- covering themes of torture, prejudice and economic hardship -- over the course of a single day, and linked by a single rooftop terrace. It sounds like the kind of socially conscious international fare that often finds favor with festival juries, but that's pure projection; Allouache has won awards outside of Competition at both Cannes and Berlin.  

Join me tomorrow for another roundup of five Venice Competition titles, as we count down to our festival coverage -- which kicks off on Wednesday. What films are you most looking forward to?

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.