Lesbian love story takes top prize at Cannes

CANNES, France — When is a lesbian coming-of-age drama not a lesbian coming-of-age drama?

We’ll let this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury president take that one: When “it’s a great love story” first and foremost, as Steven Spielberg characterized “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the world’s most prestigious and influential film festival.

Co-adapted from a graphic novel and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, “Blue” took top prize Sunday in Cannes. The sexually explicit, tenderly observed and fiercely acted drama concerns a high school student, played by Adele Exarchopoulos, and her momentous relationship with an older woman, portrayed by Lea Seydoux.

Already the film, headed for potential ratings and censorship controversy in many international markets, has caused a firestorm in France, where earlier this month same-sex marriage was legalized and protests continue in various quarters.

Spielberg and his fellow jurors took the unusual step of awarding the top prize not simply to director and co-writer Kechiche, but to the film’s two lead actresses. The jury, he said, felt “privileged” to watch this three-hour film of “deep love, deep heartbreak” evolve at its own pace and rhythm.

The key sex scenes in “Blue” take their time, all right, but the film also takes the time to allow protagonist Adele a full, emotionally complicated life on screen. Director Kechiche steers clear of melodrama. And unlike the portrait of female teenaged sexuality in “Young & Beautiful,” a much glossier competition title, “Blue” brings the viewer daringly close to the main character's skin in ways that transcend the amount of nudity depicted.

Some prize winners Sunday were warmly received and largely expected, “Blue” chief among them. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ sardonic, elegantly realized, ‘60s-set chronicle of a Greenwich Village folkie, took home the Grand Prix, which means second place in Cannes festival parlance.

Third place, the Jury Prize, was won by “Like Father, Like Son,” the Japanese story of two families, two preteen boys and one not-so-merry mix-up. A well-liked competition entry, mixing pathos and low-keyed comedy, this one seemed to have “Spielberg” imprinted all over it: a tale of families broken and mended and emotions exploited, artfully, to audience-pleasing results. Those cooler toward “Like Father, Like Son” feared its potential as a consensus, middlebrow Palme pick.

This made Spielberg’s selection of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” all the more bracing — not because it’s a more interesting film (though it is), but because it’s a film made in a style unlike anything Spielberg himself has allowed himself across a storied, varied career.

Bruce Dern surprised many with his best-actor win for “Nebraska,” in which he plays a taciturn Montana alcoholic passing through the portals of his Nebraska past. It’s the latest from “Sideways” and “The Descendants” director Alexander Payne. In the best actor category many had their money on Michael Douglas for director Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” or on Oscar Isaac, impressive and wittily misanthropic as the title character in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Spielberg said: “We liked so many movies we saw over the last 12, 13 days,” and he and his jurors appreciated many “tremendous performances.”

Berenice Bejo, best known to American audiences as Peppy Miller in “The Artist,” received the best actress prize for her work in “The Past,” Asghar Farhadi’s meticulous follow-up to the Oscar-winning “A Separation.”

The best director prize went to Amat Escalante for the Mexican drama “Heli,” while Chinese master filmmaker Jia Zhangke received the screenplay award for his sprawling, four-story mosaic of violence, hypocrisy and contemporary China, “A Touch of Sin.”

Juror Nicole Kidman noted in the post-ceremony press conference that when she saw a film affected, to some degree, how she saw it. “Rarely do I watch a movie at 8:30 in the morning,” she said, adding that she preferred the 10:30 p.m. screenings.

Spielberg characterized the jury deliberations as yielding “unambiguous consensus” for “at least three” of the big awards. Several questions after the ceremony at the press conference focused on France’s legalizing of same-sex marriage. Spielberg was quick to dismiss the Palme for “Blue” as political. “Politics was not a companion in our decisions, or our discussions,” he said. Added fellow juror, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay: “Everyone can recognize their own relationship in the film, whether they’re straight or gay.”

Besides, said another juror, Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu: “The cinema in it is wonderful.”

Shut-outs this year include “Behind the Candelabra,” now airing on HBO; James Gray’s delicate but divisive period drama “The Immigrant,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, for which many anticipated at least second or third prize; and “The Great Beauty,” a Roman panorama of jaded humanity and Felliniesque color from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.

The Camera d’Or prize for best first film went to “Ilo Ilo” and director Anthony Chen. Announced Saturday, “The Missing Picture” from Cambodia won top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

The 67th edition of Festival du Cannes opens next May.

mjphillips@tribune.com | Twitter @phillipstribune

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