CANNES — “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s sweeping and sexually explicit drama about a French teenage girl’s love affair with another woman, received the Palme d’Or at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night. In a history-making decision, the Steven Spielberg-led jury opted not only to give the first Palme d’Or to a gay romantic drama, but to present the accolade jointly to three artists: Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche and French actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.
The Grand Prix went to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s warmly received musical comedy-drama about a downtrodden singer-guitarist from New York’s 1960s folk scene. It’s the eighth film the Coen brothers have had in competition at Cannes; they won the Palme d’Or for 1991′s “Barton Fink,” as well as directing prizes for “Barton Fink,” “Fargo” (1996) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001).
The Coens weren’t the only Yank talents recognized at Sunday’s Audrey Tautou-hosted closing ceremony. In a widely applauded decision, 76-year-old Bruce Dern drew the actor kudo for his performance as an aging husband and father in Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road movie “Nebraska.” In contrast with last year, when none of the five American films in competition won a prize, Spielberg’s jury spread the wealth around, honoring a range of films from Europe, North America and Asia.
With its 175-minute running time (the longest of any film in competition) and graphic lesbian sex scenes, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” dominated festival conversation following its first press screenings on Wednesday night and was swiftly acquired for Stateside distribution by IFC’s Sundance Selects. Still, audiences at the Palais des Festivals were held in some suspense until the final moments of the ceremony, as Exarchopoulos’ presence had led many to assume she had won the actress prize, which would have technically prevented “Blue” from also winning the Palme.
This is the second year in a row that the festival’s top prize has gone to a French-language feature, as Austrian helmer’s Paris-set drama “Amour” won in 2012. It also represents a rare instance of a director winning Cannes’ top prize for his first film in competition; Kechiche’s previous two films, “The Secret of the Grain” (2007) and “Black Venus” (2010), bowed in competition at the Venice Film Festival (where “Grain” was a multiple prizewinner).
At a press conference following the ceremony, Spielberg described Kechiche’s film as “a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative. He let the scenes play in real life, and we were absolutely spellbound.”
While the presentation of international cinema’s highest honor to this particular film struck a topical note at a time when the gay-marriage debate continues to rage (France just legalized it last week), Spielberg rejected the idea that politics had influenced the jury’s decision. “As you know, the characters in this film do not get married,” he said. “Politics were never in the room with us.” He also said that the decision to honor thesps Exarchopoulos and Seydoux alongside Kechiche was essential, noting that, “If the casting had been even 3% wrong, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. All of us felt we needed to invite all three artists to the stage together.”
Spielberg added that while he expected the film to play well in the U.S., “I’m not sure it will be allowed to play in every state.”
The jury presented a united front backstage, as Spielberg noted that there had been no behind-the-scenes drama, and that he and his fellow jurors were able to come to a consensus on “at least three of the incredibly important choices.” Juror Nicole Kidman noted that, given their hectic schedule, she asked her jurors to see certain films more than once. In addition to Spielberg and Kidman, the jury included directors Ang Lee, Cristian Mungiu, Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase, and actors Christoph Waltz, Daniel Auteuil and Vidya Balan.
In perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise, Mexican helmer Amat Escalante received the directing nod for his third feature, “Heli.” A tough drama about a family torn apart by drug-related gang violence, the film screened on the first evening of the festival and generated discussion primarily for its attention-grabbing image of a man having his genitals set on fire.
Berenice Bejo took the actress award for her performance as a Parisian woman seeking a divorce from her Iranian husband in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.” The last time Bejo appeared in a Cannes competition entry was in 2011 with “The Artist,” for which she later received an Oscar nomination.
Two of the three Asian films in competition were singled out for recognition. The jury prize was awarded to “Like Father, Like Son,” Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate drama about two families who discover their sons were swapped at birth, while Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke was given the screenplay prize for “A Touch of Sin,” his four-part drama based on real-life episodes of violence in contempo China.
In another victory for an Asian film, albeit one outside the official selection, the Camera d’Or jury, headed by Agnes Varda, presented its prize for best first feature to Singaporean helmer Anthony Chen’s Directors’ Fortnight entry “Ilo ilo.” Chen noted in his acceptance speech that his was the first pic from Singapore to receive an award in Cannes.
Despite having generated considerable buzz during the festival, Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra,” James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” went home empty-handed.
Before Sunday’s ceremony, the Un Certain Regard jury, headed by Thomas Vinterberg, gave its top award to “The Missing Picture,” Cambodian helmer Rithy Panh’s documentary account of his childhood under the Pol Pot regime, and a jury prize to “Omar,” helmer Hany Abu-Assad’s drama about young Palestinian men driven to violence.
Ryan Coogler’s first feature, “Fruitvale Station,” received a Future prize, adding to its two big wins at Sundance, while a directing award was presented to Gallic helmer Alain Guiraudie for his gay-cruising thriller “Stranger by the Lake,” acquired during the festival by Strand Releasing. Finally, the Un Certain Regard jury handed a special A Certain Talent award to the ensemble cast of “La jaula de oro,” an immigration thriller from Mexico-based Spanish helmer Diego Quemada-Diaz.
The big winner in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar was “Me Myself and Mum,” Gallic actor-director Guillaume Gallienne’s comedy adapted from his own stage show; the pic won both the Art Cinema award and the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers’ SACD prize, given to a French-language film. “The Selfish Giant,” British helmer Clio Barnard’s unconventional take on Oscar Wilde, received the Europa Cinemas Label for best European film.
Like Directors’ Fortnight, the Critics’ Week yielded a double winner: “Salvo,” a thriller from Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, which won both the Grand Prix and the Visionary prize in the sidebar. A special mention went to Argentinian entry “The Owners,” helmed by Agustin Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky, while Canadian director Sebastien Pilote’s farming drama “Le Demantelement” took the SACD prize for best screenplay.
The Fipresci international critics jury sided with Spielberg’s jury, giving its top competition prize to “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” and also bestowed awards on Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” (Un Certain Regard) and Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” (Directors’ Fortnight).
MAIN JURY PRIZES
Palme d’Or: “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (Abdellatif Kechiche, director; Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, actresses; France-Belgium-Spain)
Grand Prix: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
Director: Amat Escalante, “Heli” (Mexico)
Jury prize: “Like Father, Like Son” (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska” (Alexander Payne, U.S.)
Actress: Berenice Bejo, “The Past” (Asghar Farhadi, France-Italy)
Screenplay: Jia Zhangke, “A Touch of Sin” (China)
UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY PRIZES
Main prize: “The Missing Picture” (Rithy Panh, Cambodia-France)
Jury prize: Hany Abu-Assad, “Omar” (Palestine)
Director: Alain Guiraudie, “Stranger by the Lake” (France)
Future prize: “Fruitvale Station” (Ryan Coogler, U.S.)
A Certain Talent prize: Ensemble cast of “La jaula de oro” (Diego Quemada-Diaz, Mexico-Spain)
OTHER JURY PRIZES
Camera d’Or: “Ilo ilo” (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
Directors’ Fortnight Art Cinema Award: “Me Myself and Mum” (Guillaume Gallienne, France)
Directors’ Fortnight Europa Cinemas Label: “The Selfish Giant” (Clio Barnard, U.K.)
Directors’ Fortnight SACD Prize: “Me Myself and Mum”
Critics’ Week Grand Prix: “Salvo” (Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza, Italy)
Critics’ Week Visionary Prize: “Salvo”
Critics’ Week Special Mention: “The Owners” (Agustin Toscano, Ezequiel Radusky, Argentina)
Critics’ Week SACD Prize for Screenplay: “Le Demantelement” (Sebastien Pilote, Canada)
Short Films Palme d’Or: “Safe” (Moon Byoung-gon, South Korea)
Ecumenical Jury Prize: “The Past” (Asghar Farhadi, France-Italy)
Competition: “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Un Certain Regard: “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
Directors’ Fortnight: “Blue Ruin” (Jeremy Saulnier, U.S.)
(Scott Foundas contributed to this report.)