Nicole Kidman sizzles as a small-town vamp drawn to a convicted murderer in Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy", marking the US director's return to Cannes Thursday after his harrowing hit "Precious".
The steamy film noir, set partly in the humid Florida swamps, features a bleached-blonde Kidman as Charlotte, an "oversexed Barbie doll" who carries on correspondence with dozens of prison inmates in the late 1960s.
One day a letter arrives that stands out from the pile for its graphic account of the sex that convict Hillary (John Cusack) proposes to have with her when he gets out. Charlotte promptly declares him "The One".
Meanwhile crusading newspaperman Ward (Matthew McConaughey) learns of Hillary's case and becomes convinced he has been falsely sent to death row for killing a policeman.
Ward, his brother Jack (Zac Efron) and a black writer Yardley (David Oyelowo) begin to investigate with the help of a dossier compiled by Charlotte, whose tacky sensuality proves mesmerising to the fresh-faced Jack.
The group's first visit to Moat County prison turns into a farcical seduction, as the sex-starved Hillary commands Charlotte to simulate fellatio at a distance as the red-faced reporters look on.
The Australian Kidman, who dials down her natural glamour and turns up the sex appeal in the role of a trashy seductress, said she had been looking for "something raw and something dangerous" when she was given Daniels' screenplay.
"I wanted to be in his hands and see what he would do," said Kidman, who was in Cannes in 2003 with Lars Von Trier's "Dogville". "I may be uncomfortable watching the movie, but that's my job."
Daniels had some explaining to do over a scene -- lifted directly from the Pete Dexs into a bank of jellyfish.
"I'm not here to please everybody, I'm here to tell the truth," he told AFP when quizzed about the sequence, suggesting the buzz of disbelief it unleashed on the Internet was because people "have a fetish about it".
As his characters journey into the moist heat of the
ter book on which it is based -- that sees Kidman pee on her co-star Zac Efron after he swim Florida swamps, Daniels probes a dank and violent underbelly of American society.
"There's something very erotic about the 'swamp', something very magnetising about that world and these people," McConaughey told reporters.
"Murky, mysterious. Everyone in this film, everything is not as it seems."
Daniels took Dexter's novel as his starting point, but worked in a sub-plot on race relations through the added characters of the black writer and the housekeeper Anita, who narrates the tale.
"Every character in this movie is someone that I know personally," the African-American director told AFP after the screening.
Despite the fraught race relations of the era, the young Jack has an affectionate relationship with the maid Anita (the singer Macy Gray), who steps in to raise the brothers after their mother leaves home.
"Anita represents my mother, Anita represents my aunts, she represents a lot of black women that were misrepresented in 'The Help'," said Daniels, referring to the novel about African American maids in the 1960s.
"That is their relationship with the white people that they worked with.
"I made this movie as a black, gay man," he said. "I understand these people. I'm trying to introduce those that don't know this world into my world. I think that's what film-making is."
For the prison plotline, Daniels also drew on personal experience, having raised his brother's two children after the latter was jailed for murder.
The film also touches on homophobia, in particular the issue of inter-racial gay sex: "In the 1980s, I dated many white men that would have sex with me and would not see me in public, and they hated themselves for that," he told AFP.
One of 22 movies in the running for the festival's Palme d'Or top prize to be handed out on Sunday, the film divided the audience at an early press screening, drawing a mix of applause and boos.
Daniels' first feature film, "Precious", the story of an African-American incest survivor, screened in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar section before going on to two Academy Award nominations.