Cannes Diary: Of Efrons, Cinephiles And Whale-Taming Cotillards In the first of several letters from the Cannes Film Festival, writer Raj Ranade parses the fest's appetite for art-house fare and reports on one standout drama that's headed for the U.S. this year.

Cannes Diary: Of Efrons, Cinephiles And Whale-Taming Cotillards

There are plenty of American celebs swarming the Croisette for the Cannes Film Festival, but the focus of the fest remains heavily on art-house projects and personalities. Director Michel Gondry, pictured, screens The We and the I at this year's festival. Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

To understand the peculiar atmosphere at the Cannes Film Festival, you only need to look at last year's premiere of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Multiple journalists compared the frenzy for admission into that first screening to a mosh pit — one in which people were perfectly willing to bound over railings and punch women in the face.

It's hard enough to imagine mayhem like that erupting over any art-house movie here in the U.S., but the fact that this was The Tree of Life makes the scene even more bizarre: By God, these people were going to see this 139-minute paean to love and harmony in the cosmos, even if they had to step on somebody's neck to do it.

But then every film festival has its own personality. Toronto's fest is notably crowd-friendly and Oscar-obsessed, for example, while the Telluride Film Festival is known for its artistic purity and collegial spirit. The Cannes demographic is the cutthroat cinephile.

Cannes works hard to maintain its status as top dog when it comes to scoring the most anticipated art-house premieres, and perhaps as a result, every aspect of the festival is soaked in a spirit of competition. You expect some of this: the Hollywood power players scrambling for invites to beach parties underneath lavish fireworks displays, the paparazzi forming impenetrable human walls to street traffic during red carpet photo-ops, Harvey Weinstein twisting arms (maybe literally) to acquire a hot new indie release.

But competition even subtly infringes on the camaraderie of the press corps here. Those covering the fest receive badges that place them in a color-coded caste system, based on the influence of the news organization they represent. Yellow or blue badge press wait in long lines for screenings, staring enviously at the pink- or white-badge critics, who get to stroll right in and feel special. (At least until they see that Zac Efron also gets to breeze right in, even though I bet he hardly knows anything about Romanian New Wave cinema, and is just going to go party on a yacht later.)

A love for cinema does just barely manage to unite the squabbling crowds here — specifically a passion for the kind of highbrow cinema that this year features, uh, Efron, Shia LaBeouf, Matthew McConaughey (in two films!) and the immortal duo of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. (Current festival highlight: a French correspondent's delightfully accented pronunciation of "R. Patz and K. Stew.")

In fairness, all these actors are in promising projects: Stewart is in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Pattinson stars in David Cronenberg's dystopian one-percenter drama Cosmopolis, Efron and McConaughey form a love triangle with Nicole Kidman in the Everglades-set thriller The Paperboy, and LaBeouf joins Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain for the 1930s bootlegger epic Lawless.

Cannes doesn't usually embrace Hollywood this enthusiastically. It's traditionally been much more focused on films from established art-cinema icons like Alain Resnais and Abbas Kiarostami (each presenting new work this year) and up-and-coming directors like Cristian Mungiu (director of the Palme D'Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days) and Hong Sang-Soo (think Woody Allen if his characters were Korean and constantly blitzed on soju).

There's been speculation that the heavily American slate isn't just an attempt to generate fan-fiction about Bella and Edward on the French Riviera, but a very calculated move for the festival towards mainstream relevance. Festival director Thierry Fremaux has been dogged in past years by whispers that Cannes' rarefied brand of cinema no longer matters to mainstream audiences, and he may be hoping to build on the Oscar dominance of 2011 Cannes discovery The Artist. It's certainly no accident that Artist star Berenice Bejo was chosen to emcee this year's opening- and closing-night ceremonies.

In any case, I'll be covering the festival for Monkey See, and offering up more post-screening reactions and petty movie-star jealousy on Twitter. I only hope that the competition as a whole lives up to the standard set by Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, the first great film I've seen here.

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts star in Rust and Bone, a subtle and surprising drama from director Jacques Audiard. Why Not Productions hide caption

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Why Not Productions

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts star in Rust and Bone, a subtle and surprising drama from director Jacques Audiard.

Why Not Productions

It's about a kickboxing single father (Matthias Schoenarts) who becomes friends-with-benefits with a disabled former killer-whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) — and the highest praise I can bestow is that it never seems as contrived or formulaic as that seemingly Mad-Libs-generated description might suggest. (You can view the trailer at the bottom of this post.)

That both characters help each other toward redemption is predictable, but the path they take (involving illegal street fighting, frank sexuality and a decided lack of romance) is anything but.

But then Audiard has a gift for grounding complex plots in minute detail. His 2009 Cannes sensation A Prophet was an intricate story about rival prison factions struggling for power, but it was also a film that took the time to emphasize the feeling of sand between a furloughed prisoner's toes (or, for that matter, of a blade on skin).

It's that same kind of attention to sensory specifics — a plaster cast molding around an amputated leg, bloody fists pounding against ice — that keeps the redemption story of Rust and Bone feeling real even when it veers towards the melodramatic.

Even more important is Audiard's attitude towards inner change within individuals, which is shown as something that can be far more difficult to achieve than the healing of physical wounds. There's a lot of stubborn Jake LaMotta rigidity to Schoenarts' performance — the movie pays homage to Raging Bull's climax with a scene on a frozen lake — and while lessons have been learned by the film's end, whether meaningful change has occurred is still unclear.

It's the kind of inspired version of reality that you don't often see on film — the kind of thing that keeps bringing people back to Cannes.

View the Rust and Bone trailer.