CANNES, France (Reuters) - Wanton cruelty and twisted family dynamics took center stage in Cannes Thursday with "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a dark drama in which Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a sadistic son.
Dragging the Cannes film festival into a darker mood on day two, the movie by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay jolted critics with its stark, unflinching portrayal of a mother-son relationship defined not by love but cruelty and mutual hatred.
Tension and a sense of anxiety run high from the start of the film, which opens with Swinton's American character, Eva, attempting to put her life back together in the wake of a tragedy and facing outrage from her neighbors.
As her house is vandalized with splashes of blood-red paint and townspeople slap her face in the street, Eva isolates herself and retreats into her past -- remembering her family life in a series of extended flashbacks that give the movie a halting, disjointed feel.
Sticking closely to Eva's point of view, Ramsay shows the birth of her son and tracks his development from colicky baby to taciturn boy, played by Ezra Miller, who seems intent on punishing his mother by any means -- from spilling food to killing his sisters' pet hamster to the movie's murderous climax.
Despite some carefully framed scenes of horror, Ramsay said the movie's intent was not to show violence but take on the psychological taboo of a dysfunctional mother-son dynamic.
"Sometimes the child is born and you don't know who that child is," she told journalists at a news conference. "It's not a film about a high school shooting, it's about a mother-son relationship...It's about guilt."
John C. Reilly, a U.S. actor better known for his role in comedies, plays convincingly opposite Swinton as Eva's husband and defender of the young Kevin, with whom he seems to enjoy a normal parent-child relationship.
Adapted from Lionel Shriver's popular 2003 novel, the movie is dark and slow-moving with sparse dialogue and acts of violence that are implied, rather than shown on-screen.
"I'm of the opinion that cinema went downhill since people started talking in it," said Swinton, 50, who looked healthier with her platinum blonde hair than she did in the movie.
Miller, 18, known for his role in the U.S. series "Californication," said he had no trouble getting into the role of a murderous teen. "To my horror, I do feel a little connected to Kevin," he said.
Immediate reaction to the movie was mixed, as a small number of viewers in the audience left long before the end while others applauded heartily at the end.
Also premiering in the main competition Thursday was "Sleeping Beauty," the first feature by Australian novelist Julia Leigh.
It tells the story of student Lucy, played by Emily Browning, who offers herself up for sex for money before being drawn into a strange world where she is heavily sedated while elderly men admire and stroke her naked body.
Desperate to find out what happens while she is unconscious, she sneaks a small camera into the room, and it is images from that camera which close the disturbing, understated tale.
Additional reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato