Landmark lesbian romance wins Palme d’or at Cannes

"We were privileged, not embarrassed, to be flies on the wall," said jury president Steven Spielberg. "We were absolutely spellbound."
Actress Lea Seydoux, left, director Abdellatif Kechiche, centre, and Adele Exarchopoulos pose with the Palme d’Or award for the film La Vie D’Adele during a photo call after an awards ceremony at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Palme d'or winners Lea Seydoux, Abdellatif Kechiche and Adele Exarchopoulos (Lionel Cironneau/AP)

The traditional image of the French movie as an erotic frontier—where art, sex and romance create electrifying chemistry—just got a new lease on life. Today Steven Spielberg’s Cannes jury presented the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’or, to Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adele), an intimate three-hour epic that goes where mainstream cinema has never gone before. It’s a lesbian love story with unprecedented heat. The story of a 17-year-old schoolgirl who comes of age by falling madly in love, and lust, with an older artist, it unfolds in graphic detail, sexual and emotional. The Palme d’or is usually given just to the director. But in an “exceptional” gesture, the magnanimous Mr. Spielberg awarded the Palme both to French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche and to the film’s young co-stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos, 20, and Léa Seydoux 26, who accepted it in a flood of tears.

Among the other awards,  Inside Llewyn Davis, The Coen brothers’ portrait of a struggling folksinger at the dawn of the ’60s, took the runner-up Grand Jury Prize. And Bruce Dern, 76, who plays a taciturn alcoholic in Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road move Nebraska,  was the surprise winner for best performance by an actor—the award was widely expected to go to a slightly younger Hollywood veteran, 68-year-old Michael Douglas, who plays Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (airing on HBO tonight).

Best actress went to Argentine-born French actress Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) for her tempestuous performance as a Parisian mother wrestling with divorce in Le Passé (The Past), a French production directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation). It was a strong year for French cinema, which figured in three of the seven awards in the main competition, including the French-financed Coen brothers’ film.

Among the other prizes, Jia Zhankgke’s A Touch of Sin won best screenplay and Amat Escalante’s Heli was the dark-horse winner of best director. Both are brutally violent films dramatizing social issues, in China and Mexico respectively. A Pulp Fiction-like weave of four stories splattered with gun violence, A Touch of Sin finds redeeming motivations for real-life vigilantes lashing out against injustice. And Heli is the harrowing tale of an innocent family ravaged by the drug wars—in which the director had the nerve to to kill two dogs and set a character’s genitals on fire.

The Camera d’Or prize for best first feature went to Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo, the first film from Singapore to win an award in Cannes. And in the sidebar Un Certain Regard, L’Image Manquante (The Missing Picture), by  Cambodian director Rithy Panh won the the top prize. The Canadian first feature in that program, Sarah prefere la course (Sarah Would Rather Run) did not win an award.

As for the Palme d’or winner, although Spielberg said he didn’t read any blogs or reviews during Cannes, his jury did end up honouring the movie that scored highest among the critics. At a press conference following the awards, I asked Spielberg about the film’s significance in a changing landscape of gender politics, and the resistance its sexually explicit scenes might meet in parts of the United States.

“The film is a great love story,” replied Spielberg, adding that it “made all us feel like we were privileged, not embarrassed to be flies on the wall, but invited to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning in a wonderful way.  Time stood still. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative or the story-telling. He let the scenes play as they would in real life. And we were absolutely spellbound by the performances of those two amazing young actresses, and especially the way the director observed his players, the way he just let the characters breathe. The spaces were as important as what they said. Whether or not [the film] plays in the United States was not a criterion. We were just really happy somebody had the courage to tell the story the way they told it.”

Pressed to comment about how the movie might fare in sexually conservative U.S. markets, Spielberg added, “I’m not saying it’s going to be able to play in every single state, but I think it’s going to get a lot of play and will be very successful in America.”

When a journalist asked if the jury’s decision resonated with the fact that it’s been a year of victories for gay marriage, both in the U.S. and France, Spielberg said: “I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, but the characters do not get married. Politics was not in the room with us.”

For the record, I loved Blue is the Warmest Colour, even though I worried that a male film critic raving about a girl-on-girl passion would immediately be suspect. After seeing it, I wrote: “It’s a tour de force by two young French actresses who generate amazing chemistry. A landmark lesbian love story, with a raw emotional and erotic realism, it’s exactly the kind of movie we dream of seeing in Cannes—something that redefines the limits of cinema, and is quite unlike anything we’ve seen before. . . Between the hot sex, the cigarettes, and discussions of  Sartre, there could not be a more archetypical French film, yet it busts through cliché into uncharted realms of intensity.”

And that’s a wrap! Some parting shots from the press conference . . .

Jury members Christoph Waltz and Nicole Kidman / photo by Brian D. Johnson
Nicole Kidman and Ang Lee / photo by BDJ
Steven Spielberg / photo by BDJ