In a highly unusual step, jury president Steven Spielberg announced that the prize was given not only to director Abdellatif Kechiche ("The Secret of the Grain"), as is traditional, but to co-stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux as well. Both actresses were in tears by the time they reached the stage.
The sexually explicit story of a young woman discovering desire and herself, "Blue" was the great favorite of French critics but divided English speakers, who called it everything from voyeuristic to the gold standard for lesbian romances to a three-hour Sundance movie in French. Or maybe a combination of all three. The film, whose French title is "La Vie d'Adèle," will be distributed in the U.S. by IFC's Sundance Selects.
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In a year without one preeminent film it was also a good night for American cinema. Two U.S. entries won major prizes, with Ethan and Joel Coen's exquisitely made "Inside Llewyn Davis" taking the Grand Prize, considered Cannes' runner-up award.
Star Oscar Isaac, who in the Coens' absence accepted the award from Kim Novak ("Wow, Kim Novak" were his first words) plays a singer in 1961's pre-Bob Dylan New York folk music scene who goes on a week-in-hell journey that is haunting and bleakly funny.
Also not present was "Nebraska's" Bruce Dern (director Alexander Payne accepted for him), who won the best actor prize for playing an aging, dementia-afflicted resident of Billings, Mont., who's convinced he's won $1 million in a sweepstakes and won't be talked out of going to Omaha to collect. This beautifully done film joins tart-tongued screwball comedy with a drama of unexpected poignancy and warmth to remarkable effect.
Perhaps the most surprised winner of the night was France's Bérénice Bejo, the costar of "The Artist," who took the best actress prize for her starring role in "The Past," a French film made in Paris by Iran's Asghar Farhadi, who directed through an interpreter because he doesn't speak the language.
Like Farhadi's Oscar-winning "A Separation," "The Past" displays a gift for the realistic depiction of intense emotional situations. The story focuses on an Iranian man whose return to France to give his wife (played by Bejo) the divorce she wants has devastating consequences.
So visibly surprised she almost couldn't get out of her seat, Bejo stayed so shocked that she gave most of her acceptance speech in English. "I was not expecting this, I was not expecting this," she said, before calling Farhadi to join her on the stage. "Asghar, I love you so much, and I love this movie so much, this is due to you."
Taking the Jury Prize was Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son," which deals with a topic that would be melodramatic in anyone else's hands: Two very different sets of parents discover that their 6-year-old sons were switched at birth and they've been raising someone else's child.
But Kore-eda ("After Life," "Nobody Knows") is not only a master at working with children, he is an innately empathetic director with an exquisitely natural style, and this film manages to be sweet and gentle while asking pointed questions about the nature of family.
Another Asian writer-director, China's Jia Zhangke, received the best screenplay award for his "A Touch of Sin." An omnibus film, "Sin" offers a corrosive depiction of the New China, an everything-for-sale society still figuring out how to cope with the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism.
"China is changing so fast," the filmmaker said in English in accepting. "Film is the best way for me to look for freedom."
Named best director was Mexico's Amat Escalante, whose "Heli" is a grim look at a society overwhelmed by extreme drug war-related violence. The festival's Camera d'Or, for the best first film, went to Anthony Chen's "Ilo Ilo" from Singapore, that country's first Cannes award.
Sadly not getting a prize was Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty," a cinematic phantasmagoria made with style to burn. An updating of "La Dolce Vita," it stars the great Italian actor Toni Servillo as a veteran Roman high-life chronicler on the brink of despair.
A pair of American films took awards outside the main competition. Jeremy Saulnier's revenge melodrama "Blue Ruin" took the FIPRESCI or international critics' prize for the Directors Fortnight section, and Ryan Coogler's Sundance winner "Fruitvale Station" won the Prize of the Future from Un Certain Regard.
Among the standouts outside the main competition were two films that were smart riffs on traditional genre material and a third that's one of a kind.
Rebecca Zlotowski's "Grand Central" is an involving neo-noir that expertly details an amour fou between a rootless worker and a Lana Turner look-alike, provocatively set in the toxic ambience surrounding one of France's nuclear power plants.
Set by contrast during the last hours of the first manned mission to the Red Planet, Ruairi Robinson's "The Last Days on Mars" stars Liev Schreiber and Olivia Williams as crew members who have to cope with a virulent form of alien life. Familiar but undeniably gripping, "Mars" is a nifty genre exercise, a fast-moving B picture that shows that science fiction done on a budget can hold its own with anything.
Harder to classify was "All Is Lost," J.C. Chandor's gripping and adventurous follow-up to "Margin Call." Starring a nonspeaking Robert Redford and no one else, it's the story of a solo sailor trying to stay alive on his 39-foot yacht as everything that can go wrong does.
Despite the inevitable focus on new films, the most memorable aspect of a given festival is often the connection made between cinema's past and present in the Cannes Classics section, and so it was this year.
Not only was a color restoration of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu's last film, 1963's "An Autumn Afternoon," a complete knockout, it was movingly introduced by fellow countryman Kore-eda, who revealed that he writes all of his films in the same mountain retreat that Ozu used. "If you are seeing this film for the first time," he told the capacity crowd, "I am jealous of you."