A powerful lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and a groundbreaking Holocaust drama emerged as favourites as the Cannes Film Festival hit the halfway mark Monday.Critics are calling it a banner year at the world's top cinema showcase, with the selection of 19 contenders for the coveted Palme d'Or top prize filled with delights and surprises.
In an early stand-out, Todd Haynes's Carol features Blanchett as a wealthy 1950s housewife who falls hard for a budding photographer (Rooney Mara).
The lushly shot period piece sees Carol, who is divorcing her businessman husband, threatened with the loss of custody of her young daughter on "moral grounds".
The film makes a strong case for equal rights at a time when, as Blanchett noted after the screening, dozens of countries still have anti-homosexuality laws on the books.
Rapturous reviewers in this Riviera port town said Carol had already emerged as a favourite for next year's Oscars.
Film industry bible Variety called it "an exquisitely drawn, deeply felt love story that teases out every shadow and nuance of its characters' inner lives".
A poll of nine international critics by Britain's Screen magazine put Carol head and shoulders above the rest, with an average 3.5 out of four stars.
Meanwhile the unflinching Holocaust feature Son of Saul by Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes also drew rave reviews from shocked critics.
Cannes watchers said the unique relentlessness of Nemes's depiction of a 36-hour period in the Auschwitz death camp could win over the jury led by US filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
French daily Le Monde said Nemes, who lost several members of his family to the gas chambers, said he made the film to keep the history of the Holocaust alive for "the generations that soon will have no direct contact with the witnesses".
A still from Son Of Saul
- Potential gems -
Among the more bizarre entries, which nevertheless won ardent fans, was The Lobster by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in a story about single people sequestered in a hotel and given 45 days to find a partner, or be transformed into the animal of their choosing.
The darkly comic send-up of modern love packed an emotional punch, with BBC critic Nicholas Barber giving it five out of five stars and calling it a "shrewd commentary on the societal pressures we're all under to form relationships".
Italian veteran Nanni Moretti also drew high marks for his My Mother and was leading a poll of 15 French critics in Film Francais magazine.
Moretti stars alongside US actor John Turturro in a semi-autobiographical film about a director suffering personal and professional crises that left many weepy as they emerged from the giant Palais venue.
Audiences also embraced Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister, a gentle Japanese family drama adapted from a manga comic, and the Italian-made, English-language Tale of Tales, a bloody Gothic fable starring Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly.
But in one of the biggest Cannes flops in recent memory, Gus Van Sant garnered howls for The Sea of Trees starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey as a man who travels to Japan to commit suicide.
London's The Guardian newspaper called it a "fantastically annoying and dishonest tear-jerker".
Always a potpourri of high art and big-money commercial fare, the festival also saw the rip-roaring premiere of a new Mad Max blockbuster starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.
Scott Roxborough of trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter told AFP that the 12-day festival's second half still had many potential gems in store.
He said Youth by Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino with Michael Caine, Weisz and Jane Fonda; Dheepan, a drama about a Sri Lankan refugee by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard; and Jia Zhangke's follow-up to his 2013 Chinese tour de force A Touch of Sin looked particularly intriguing.
Roxborough said the Cannes market, where film rights are bought and sold, was also bouncing back after a few lean years.
"It's not up to the levels before the crash of 2007-2008 when people were going crazy with $100-million films flying around like candy," he said.
"But people haven't been buying for a couple of years so they're restarting the market. And of course a lot of territories' economies are doing a bit better" including Spain, Italy and sanctions-hit Russia "which has sort of bottomed out now and is rebounding".
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