The auteur: Jacques Audiard (French, 59 years old)

The talent: Though Audiard has never been averse to working with actors on the French A-list, his latest represents his shiniest star collaboration to date, with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard taking top billing -- the Hollywood adoptee's first lead role in a French-language feature since 2009's "The Last Flight." Audiard's male leads, in recent years, have been rather imaginatively chosen, and this one is no exception: Matthias Schoenaerts may still be an unfamiliar name to many, but the hulking, impressive Belgian actor made a major impact in last year's Oscar-nominated "Bullhead," for which he won several festival awards. The supporting cast featueres another notable Belgian, actor-director Bouli Lanners, and relative newcomer Celine Sallette, Cesar-nominated for last year's Cannes entry "House of Tolerance."

As for the offscreen talent, Audiard acolytes will be pleased to see most of his creative partnerships intact. As he did on "A Prophet," Thomas Bidegain co-wrote the screenplay with the director. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine shot both "A Prophet" and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," while editor Juliette Welfling (an Oscar nominee for Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") has cut all Audiard's features. Composer Alexandre Desplat has also been with Audiard from the beginning, long before he became one of the giants of his field -- alongside Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," this is his second credit on a Competition entry this year.

The pitch: The crossover success of Audiard's last two films may have cemented Audiard in some arthouse viewers' minds as a director of cool, hard-bitten, male-oriented crime dramas, so "Rust and Bone," adapted from a short story collection by Canadian genre writer Craig Davidson, might strike them as a bit of a departure. His first female-led film since 2001's "Read My Lips," it stars Cotillard as a killer whale trainer at a marine park who loses a leg to an Orca; she embarks on a romance with Schoenaerts's unemployed bare-knuckle boxer. Beyond that, details are sketchy: as exciting as it is to see Audiard getting in touch with his romantic side again, that needn't come at the expense of his taste for brutality.

The pedigree: That Audiard has risen to the status of one of France's most celebrated auteurs while making only five previous features in 18 years says much for the command and distinctiveness of his style -- it helps that each of his films has, arguably, been better received than the last. Still, "A Prophet" is a tough act to follow: the second Cannes entry of his career (the first, the 1996 WWII dramedy "A Self-Made Hero," won him Best Screenplay at the fest), it was one of the critical sensations of Cannes in 2009, winning the Grand Prix (the runner-up to the Palme d'Or) and snagging an Oscar nomination the following year.

The buzz: If the last paragraph didn't make it clear enough, expectations will be sky-high for Audiard's latest -- and with three years apparently the minimum amount of time the director needs to turn around a new film, a below-par effort would be all the more disappointing. (He's never struck out yet, mind.) No advance word on the film has leaked yet -- though it'll be opening in France virtually simultaneously with its Cannes premiere -- but an enigmatic trailer, released earlier this month, impressed many while befuddling a few. An apparent change of pace from a major filmmaker will always raise as many nerves as it does excitement. 

The odds: Audiard was favored by many to take the Palme for "A Prophet"; second-hand jury gossip has it that the voting was close between the film and eventual champ "The White Ribbon." The sense that the director is owed to some extent is propelling "Rust and Bone" near the top of many bookies' lists, though juries don't always think that way. On paper, Cotillard looks a strong contender for the Best Actress prize, though she'd be the fourth major French star in a row to take acting honors at the fest; if the jury feels inclined towards smaller names this year, she and the film could suffer. Schoenaerts, however, with his rumbling career momentum, could be a Best Actor dark horse.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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