CANNES, FRANCE, MAY 19— Love is in the air here at Cannes, and so is at least one Oscar prospect. Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard is first out of the gate this year with a riveting performance as a double amputee in Jacques Audiard’s tough, achingly beautiful drama Rust and Bone. Crippled by a freak killer whale accident in the south of France (yeah, I just wrote that), Orca trainer Cotillard mends a shattered life by finding mutual redemption in the arms of a stoic single father and amateur kickboxer (played with muscular intensity by human bicep Matthias Schoenaerts). On paper—and in lesser hands—this Riviera romance would seem preposterous. But Mr. Audiard, an alchemist of character studies, conjures up his world with expert flair, and creates a stunning, deeply felt portrait of passion and compassion between a woman aching to connect and a man hiding behind his brute strength. And the broken but gingerly resolute Ms. Cotillard is commanding in a legless role considerably sexier than Gary Sinise’s bitter Vietnam vet from Forrest Gump, aided by breathtakingly seamless digital technology that makes Lieutenant Dan look like the victim of a bad eraser attack.
But the festival’s most naked performance, emotionally and physically, goes thus far to Margarethe Tiesel, the brave star of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love. Playing a zaftig Austrian sex tourist who goes to Kenya and finds herself overwhelmed by eager ebony action, Tiesel lets that sunburned, middle-aged cellulite all hang out while surrounded by lean African gigolos groping both her flesh and her pocketbook. An obvious critique of European colonialism that quickly becomes a fascinating study of mutual exploitation and self-destructive loneliness, Paradise: Love will haunt you like a bad wet dream. (And—due to a massive amount of unsexy sexual situations that just barely stop short of hardcore—U.S. audiences should cross their fingers that an adventurous distributor will pick it up).
While not quite as graphic, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills delivers an equally charged portrait of a lovelorn women (Cristina Flutur) victimized by a religious and civic order that literally crucifies her for raging against the machine. Her only hope is to convince her childhood friend and onetime lesbian lover (Cosmina Stratan) to give up her monastic vows so they can be together again, and somehow escape the suffocating layers of institutional control that have defined their entire lives. Winner of the Palme d’Or five years ago for his communist-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the Romanian auteur paints an ambitious portrait of systemic repression and distrust that implicates orphanages, foster homes, police stations, hospitals, and churches. This is Cannes as its best: ambitious themes writ large in experiences that are all too human.