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Photograph: EPA/SEBASTIEN NOGIERE

The premieres of two movies about women being assaulted in their homes brought to an end the main competition for the 69th Cannes Film Festival.

Elle, director Paul Verhoeven's tale of lust, violence and revenge, as well as Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, which premiered on Saturday, are two of the 21 films that are vying for Cannes' coveted prizes, including the Palme d'Or.

German director Maren Ade's comedy Toni Erdmann has emerged as the favourite for the festival's prestigious prizes which are to be handed out at a gala award ceremony on Sunday evening.

Ade's film garnered a stunning record score of 3.7 out of a possible 4 points on the grid of international film critics drawn up by the London-based Screen International, which is considered to be key gauge of the critical response to the films screened at the festival.

US actor-turned-director Sean Penn's The Last Face, which told the story of a love affair between a relief-aid doctor and the director of an international aid organization in war-torn Liberia, received the lowest score on record of just 0.2.

The 77-year-old Verhoeven's Elle represents his first appearance in Cannes in more than 20 years in a movie-making career that has spanned Europe and the United States and included such definitive US films including Robocop and recently the Dutch Second World War thriller Black Book.

"The film is both very American and very European at the same time," said leading French actress Isabelle Huppert, who head ups Elle's strong French cast.

The psychological thriller was the Dutch-born Verhoeven's first movie in French and was based on a script by US scriptwriter David Birke that was adapted from the novel Oh.. by French writer Philippe Dijian.

But Verhoeven, who first appeared in Cannes in 1992 with the erotic thriller Basic Instinct, is very wary of the popularity of superheroes in US cinema.

"We have lost contact with normal people," he told the Cannes press conference marking Elle's screening adding that stories about real people are more interesting that many figures invented by filmmakers.

In Elle, Huppert plays a top video-game company executive, who is raped in her home and who sets out to turn the tables on her attacker using unconventional methods.

"The film was not a statement about women, but this particular woman," said Huppert, who has appeared in a record 20 entries in Cannes' main competition. She has won the festival's award for best actress twice.

Huppert's character in the film, Michele, refuses to be a victim. She plays one of series of strong women characters – both young and old - that have been included in the festival.

Another strong woman character in the film festival was Taraneh Alidoosti, who plays Rana in Farhadi's movie.

The Salesman is about a young couple who move into a new apartment in Tehran only to face up to a dramatic change in their life after she is attacked in an incident related to a previous tenant.

As was the case with Michele in Elle, Rana – for very different reasons – refuses to go the police.

After Rana rules out going the police, her husband, Emad played by Shahab Hosseini, launches his own increasingly obsessive probe into the assault in a bid to track down the attacker.

The 44-year-old Farhadi is also returning to Cannes three years after the screening of his movie The Past with The Salesman, which includes references to Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman.

In 2012, Farhadi won the Oscar for the best foreign language film with Nader and Simin, A Separation, which was awarded a series of prizes around the world, including the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for best picture.

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