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A Coen brothers comedy, a daring Chinese expose of exploitation and moral rot, and a divorce drama by an Iranian Oscar winner emerged as the breakout favourites as the Cannes Film Festival hit the halfway mark Tuesday.
Although incessant rain and chilly winds put a damper on the champagne-fuelled soirees in this French Riviera town, audiences have responded warmly to much of the selection so far.
In the dead heat for the Palme d'Or top prize to be awarded Sunday by jury president Steven Spielberg, critics singled out international risk-takers and solid Hollywood craftsmanship.
Reviewer polls by British trade magazine Screen and Paris-based Film Francais showed Joel and Ethan Coen's latest picture "Inside Llewyn Davis" as a clear front-runner.
The Coens, back in competition for the first time since their chilling 2007 drama "No Country for Old Men", struck a lighter note with their portrait of a struggling 1960s folk singer.
Deemed a "minor" work from the prolific siblings, critics nevertheless embraced a crowd-pleaser that delivered laughs while carrying a formidable emotional undertow.
The New York Times deemed the picture "wonderful" while industry bible Variety called it "an original, highly emotional journey through Greenwich Village nightclubs, a bleak New York winter, and one man's fraught efforts to reconcile his life and his art".
Just behind it in the rankings was China's "A Touch of Sin" (Tian Zhu Ding) by Jia Zhangke.
Jia boldly tests the Chinese censors with an ultraviolent tableau of four protagonists crushed by sleazy bureaucrats, petty humiliations and economic obstacles until they finally lash out.
London's Guardian compared Jia to masters of cinematic violence and vengeance such as Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone and said the film was "a stunning slap in the face from a previously-sedate director".
Audiences also cheered an intricate patchwork family tale "The Past" (Le Passe) set in the Paris suburbs by Iranian Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi.
Picking up themes from his last film "A Separation", a global arthouse hit, Farhadi tells the story of an estranged Iranian-French couple who have a hard time letting go.
"Those who admired Farhadi's intense Tehran domestic drama 'A Separation' -- one of the key movies of this decade so far -- will find the same intimate sensibility and the same finely-wrought shifts in perspective at work in 'The Past'," Salon reviewer Andrew O'Hehir said.
The 12-day festival got off to a rocky start Wednesday with a European premiere of "The Great Gatsby" that saw stars Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan lashed by torrential rain and fussy critics.
Stuart Kemp of the Hollywood Reporter said the first half of the competition had been short on big surprises.
"I think generally it has been safe judging by the films so far, by people that the festival likes, people that the festival is used to having," he told AFP.
A real-life theft of jewellery worth $1.4 million from Chopard, the Swiss supplier of many of the baubles worn by stars on the red carpet, and an attack by a deranged man on a beachside television studio where jury member Christoph Waltz was being interviewed added to the off-screen drama.
Some of most hotly anticipated features came in as disappointments including "The Bling Ring" by Sofia Coppola and the all-star crime epic "Blood Ties" -- both screening out of the running for prizes.
And critics savaged gory competition entries from Japan and Mexico, the latter of which sent queasy critics running for the aisles.
Kemp said the rain and cold had also tempered Cannes' legendary deal-making, where movie rights are bought and sold on the sun-kissed balconies of the town's luxury hotels.
"I think it's interesting that the weather being bad can have such a detrimental effect on the business. It really did cause meetings to be delayed, stopped, cancelled," he said.
"There were fewer exciting big projects that everyone wants a part of -- it's at the level it's been at for the last three years. I don't see any major drop but I don't see any return to the glory days."
But he noted some of the gems were likely still to come with keenly awaited new releases from Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski and Nicolas Winding Refn screening later in the week.