The red carpet is out and builders are putting the finishing touches to the Venice film festival venue ahead of Wednesday's glitzy opening, when George Clooney's political drama The Ides of March has its world premiere.

The 2011 edition of the world's oldest film festival promises a rich lineup of eagerly awaited movies and A-list stars, many of whom will hope the high-profile launch puts them on the road to awards early next year.

For the next 11 days, the Lido island across the water from Venice hosts the toast of global independent film making, as well as thousands of journalists and paparazzi who come to follow their every move.

Festival director Marco Mueller is looking forward to a program that suggests Venice can still compete with Toronto's cinema showcase, which overlaps for several days and is a cheaper alternative for Hollywood studios.

It is a program that tells you how much support we get from the artists, the film makers ... and it proves that Venice really stands as a major platform to create a special kind of visibility, Mueller told Reuters.

Donning their tuxedos along with Clooney on Wednesday will be co-stars Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman, followed later in the festival by Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and pop superstar Madonna.

I don't recall a time when so many people have been so excited by a line-up and that is across the board, said Jay Weissberg, film critic for Hollywood trade publication Variety who is a Venice festival regular.

The lineup of 22 competition films and dozens more eclipses 2010's low-key event, and Venice is aiming to repeat the success of 2008 when it launched The Hurt Locker which went on to win six Oscars including best picture.

POLANSKI ABSENT

Among the most hotly anticipated titles is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an adaption of John Le Carre's spy novel starring recent Oscar winner Colin Firth as well as Gary Oldman and John Hurt.

Other standout titles in competition include Briton Andrea Arnold's take on the Emily Bronte novel Wuthering Heights, U.S. director Ami Canaan Mann's Texas Killing Fields and William Friedkin's Killer Joe.

In A Dangerous Method, Canadian David Cronenberg explores the rivalry between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud as a young woman (Knightley) comes between them.

Roman Polanski worked on the screenplay for his latest movie Carnage, featuring Winslet, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz, while under house arrest in Switzerland last year.

The 78-year-old was eventually freed after the Swiss authorities decided not to extradite him to the United States, where he is still wanted for sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 in Los Angeles.

Yes, of course, I think ... if he leaves France it's only to travel to Switzerland and Poland so of course when I met with him and told him how much we love the film ... it is sad that he is not here, Mueller said.

But three out of his four lead cast will be here and that will create a sensation because it's really a sensational film.

Acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov brings Faust and Hong Kong's Johnnie To presents Life Without Principle, a story touching on the economic crisis and its effect on ordinary people.

Outside the main lineup, Madonna makes her second foray into feature films with W.E., a drama loosely based on divorcee Wallis Simpson whose relationship with Britain's King Edward VIII led to his abdication in 1936.

Egyptian documentary Tahrir 2011 covers the revolution and overthrow of the old regime, Philippe Faucon explores radical Islam in La Desintegration and Al Pacino plays himself and King Herod in Wilde Salome.

Steven Soderbergh promises an all-star cast including Damon, Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Law and Paltrow in Contagion, about a lethal airborne virus that spreads panic.