A Romanian nunnery tale, a killer whale of a drama and a wrenching story of love and death jostled for Cannes glory on Monday as the world's top cinema showcase hit the half-way mark.
A freak storm had done its best to take the shine off the festival's glamour, drenching stars like Isabelle Huppert and Danish heart-throb Mads Mikkelsen as they climbed the red carpet for Sunday's premiere of Michael Haneke's Love.
The torrential rain and strong winds also caused the cancellation of a string of the open-air parties that are usually a highlight of the glitzy event, and even damaged the roof of a festival screening room.
But the show went on despite forecasts of further rain for Monday evening's premieres at the beachfront festival palace, which so far this year has hosted a horde of celebs such as Jessica Chastain, Bruce Willis and Marion Cotillard.
Love was a dominant theme in the nine movies premiered so far out of 22 jockeying to get the Palme d'Or top prize on Sunday, with critics putting the Romanian film, Haneke's movie and Frenchman Jacques Audiard's work in the lead.
Cristian Mungiu, who took Cannes gold in 2007 with the chilling Communist-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, was back in the running with Beyond the Hills, the true story of a deadly "exorcism".
"Beyond the Hills is less fun than any film about lesbian nuns and their psychotic ex-lovers ought to be," said The Hollywood Reporter, but it declared it "an engrossingly serious work (that) confirms Mungiu as a maturing talent".
Screen International magazine's daily compilation of ratings by critics from across the world put the Romanian film as joint Palme favourite along with Love by Haneke, who took the top prize here in 2009 for The White Ribbon.
The Austrian's new film, which tells of a devoted husband and his dying wife in a wrenching study of love at the bitter end, got a rapturous reception.
Le Film Francais magazine's compilation put Audiard's Rust and Bone in pole position.
It stars Marion Cotillard as a killer-whale trainer who loses both legs in an accident but finds her way back to life and love with help from bare-knuckle fighter Ali, played by Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a breakout performance.
The Hunt, a taut psychological thriller by Thomas Vinterberg with Mikkelsen as a man falsely accused of molesting a child, has also emerged as a hot Palme contender.
Moonrise Kingdom, a bittersweet American family romp by Wes Anderson with an all-star cast about the thrill and sting of first love, delighted audiences as it opened the festival last Wednesday.
Austrian director Ulrich Seidl was also back at Cannes with Paradise: Love, which follows a middle-aged woman on holiday in Kenya whose search for love turns into a bitter lesson in sex tourism.
Another Palme contender creating a buzz was Australian John Hillcoat's Lawless, a Prohibition-era rural gangster movie scripted by rocker Nick Cave, which the director said was a parable for the current "failed" war on drugs.
The film by The Road director Hillcoat features Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce — with Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain as love interests — in a violent slice of hillbilly moonshine myth-making.
Geopolitics got a look in with After The Battle, an Arab Spring drama by Egypt's Yousry Nasrallah, while Italy sent a tragicomedy by Matteo Garrone starring a prison inmate as a fishmonger who loses himself in a quest to become a reality television star.
But with 13 more movies to premiere before Sunday, the race was still wide open, with mobster flick Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road" and journalism story The Paperboy the ones to watch out for.