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Cannes 2012: The Paperboy, Post Tenebras Lux

A star vehicle for Nicole Kidman provides Cannes with a Hindenburg.

Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy

As the director behind Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Lee Daniels went from being referred to as a daring indie producer for such films as Monster’s Ball to an award-winning, Oprah-approved filmmaker. What many folks didn’t realize was that Precious was not his first directorial effort; that would be 2005’s Shadowboxer, a wackadoo thriller involving cancer, assassins, interracial affairs, full-frontal nudity, uncomfortably graphic sex and Dame Helen Mirren. Though Daniels’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough movie wasn’t exactly subtle, it certainly didn’t stray into psychotronic territory the way his debut did. Most folks figured his melodrama about a young black woman finding her way in life represented a new beginning, the first step forward toward artistic maturity. Those people have not seen The Paperboy.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Cannes Film Festival

An adaptation of Pete Dexter’s swamp-pulp novel, Daniels’s star-driven slog through Florida’s sweaty, sleazy underbelly isn’t just a car wreck; it’s a jackknifed gasoline truck on the highway, one that explodes into a massive fireball and collaterally takes out four lanes of traffic. Never mind the murder of a Bull Connor–like sheriff that kicks off the narrative, a term to be used very loosely here. That incident is simply an excuse to get wanna-be journalist Jack James (Zac Efron); his hotshot-reporter brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey); an African-American cohort with a British accent (David Oyelowo); the family maid (Macy Gray); a death-row inmate (John Cusack); and the local Woman with a Reputation for Promiscuity (Nicole Kidman) to interact in various scenarios, ranging from impromptu dancing around in their underwear to gay S&M sessions. No one gets out of this Southern-fried Salò unscathed.

There’s an abundance of embarrassment to spread around the name cast, but surely the MVP award has to go to Kidman, playing an “oversexed Barbie doll” who’s called on to debase herself in ways that would give John Waters pause. All teased blond wig, blue eye shadow and bubblegum-pink lipstick, her small-town trollop is responsible for the film’s most over-the-top sex-kitten moments. (I look forward to seeing NYC drag queens reenact her scenes for decades to come.) Her scene in a jail visiting room, where she moans and mimes fellatio in order to make her inmate fiancé climax, sets the bar for hilariously outrageous behavior—at least until Efron gets repeatedly stung by jellyfish during a beachside swim. Some of you may remember that the best way to stop an allergic reaction to said affliction is to have someone urinate directly on the wounds. Let’s just say Kidman saves his life.

Daniels is purposefully courting a steroidal level of shock value for kicks and to goose the material, but not even Dexter’s wildest noirs would dispense with logic and coherence so thoroughly in the process. (To whom, exactly, are Gray’s voiceovers being addressed: a police reporter? The audience? Those angry jellyfish?) It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, a wise man once said, and there’s an even thinner, gossamer thread between wink-nudge Mason-Dixon kitsch and straight-faced sensationalism that straight up fails. Which The Paperboy does, spectacularly and in a way that no amount of copious shots of Efron in his tighty-whities can rescue from hilarity. It uses camp as a trampoline toward a rarefied stratosphere of trash cinema; midnight-movie programmers, you have your work cut out for you.

Taboo-busting sex scenes and salacious behavior are, of course, a hallmark of many Cannes entries. It’s not how big these scenes are, however, but how you use them, and the latest from Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux, proves that he knows the right way to utilize, say, a bathhouse orgy for great effect. Starting off with a breathtaking scene of a child wandering around in a thunderstorm, the Mexican director’s stream-of-consciousness drama centers on an upper-class couple living in a rural community. Their marriage is under strain, exacerbated by the husband’s substance abuse, out-of-control libido and anger-management issues. (Dog lovers, you should stay away from this one. Trust me.)

As with a lot of Reygadas’s work, there are tangents, seemingly random bits of side business and a strong sense of mysticism, as well as a good deal of visual audacity—in this case, employing a camera lens that bends the edges of the image and creates a druggy sense of unease. You’re either willing to meet the movie on its level or you’re not, but if you can tune in to Reygadas’s frequency, the result is spellbinding: a lyrical, lysergic look on various states of coming together and falling apart that’s both upsetting and oddly soothing. Not unlike urine on a jellyfish sting, come to think of it.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear