LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - CANNES -- French auteur Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, an intimately observed, mostly Tamil-language drama about a makeshift family of Sri Lankan refugees in Paris, was the unexpected winner of the Palme d'Or at the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night.
"Thank you, Michael Haneke, for not making a film this year," Audiard said as he accepted his Palme -- a reference to the fact that the Austrian helmer of The White Ribbon and Amour had beaten him for the Palme his last two times in competition, with 2009's A Prophet (which won the Grand Prix) and 2012's Rust and Bone. Audiard appeared onstage with his lead actors, Antonythasan Jesuthasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan, both of whom made their screen debuts in Dheepan.
The award was greeted with some surprise and a mixture of boos, shrugs and applause from the international press corps watching the ceremony at the Palais. Dheepan, which is being released by IFC/Sundance Selects, had drawn respectable but largely tepid reviews after its premiere; reactions were considerably less enthusiastic than they were for A Prophet and Rust and Bone. But jury co-presidents Joel and Ethan Coen noted the jury's "enthusiasm" for the film at a press conference following the ceremony.
"We all thought it was a beautiful movie," Ethan Coen said. To which Joel Coen added, "This isn't a jury of film critics. This is a jury of artists looking at the work."
In all, the jury handed a whopping three awards to French films, honoring Vincent Lindon for best actor and Emmanuelle Bercot for best actress, a prize she shared with Rooney Mara in Carol. It was a decision in keeping with the unusually strong Gallic presence at this year's festival, which featured a rare five French films in competition and opened with the Bercot-directed Standing Tall, a drama about a juvenile delinquent navigating the tough corridors of France's social and legal system.
Son of Saul, a powerfully immersive Holocaust drama from first-time Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, received the Grand Prix, the competition's runner-up prize. Recipient of some of the festival's most impassioned reviews, pro and con, the film was acquired during Cannes by Sony Classics for North American release.
"When we emerged from Son of Saul, we had a very long moment of reflection and silence," said jury member Xavier Dolan. "It's one of those films that slowly grows into you."
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything that was that effective on that subject," added another juror, actress Sienna Miller. "I thought it was an extraordinary achievement as a first film."
Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien received the festival's director prize for The Assassin, a visually dazzling martial-arts epic set in ninth-century China. The film marked Hou's seventh time in competition; he previously won the jury prize for 1993's The Puppetmaster.
Juror Guillermo Del Toro praised Hou's filmmaking for speaking "in a language, a clarity and a poetry that was exceedingly strong." Added Ethan Coen: "To make Guillermo's point succinctly, the movie had an identity."
Haynes accepted on behalf of Mara, who had already returned to New York from the festival. "She would be so completely blown away by this prize," he said. "I'm just so proud of her work, I'm so privileged to have worked with Rooney. Rooney, I love you, I wish you were here."
Many had expected Rooney to win the actress prize, and perhaps even share the honour with her onscreen partner, Cate Blanchett, in Todd Haynes' lesbian love story, Carol. Instead, she tied with Bercot for her turn as a woman in an emotionally destructive relationship in Maiwenn's Mon roi. One of the most prominent faces of the 2015 festival as the director of the opening-night film, Standing Tall, Bercot gave an effusive speech during which Dolan could be seen brushing away tears.
A visibly moved Lindon received the actor prize for his performance as a beaten-down Everyman trying to make ends meet in Stephane Brize's well-received social drama The Measure of a Man.
The jury prize, effectively the competition's bronze medal, was given to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster, a surreal sci-fi love story set in a dystopian future where marriage and procreation are mandatory and singles are given 45 days to pair up or face grim consequences. The English-language film, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, was acquired by Alchemy during the festival.
Mexican writer-director Michel Franco received the screenplay award for Chronic, his grimly observed English-language portrait of a Los Angeles palliative-care nurse (Tim Roth) dealing with his patients and past tragedies.
"This film was born in Cannes," Franco said onstage, referring to the fact that his 2012 film, After Lucia, won the Un Certain Regard prize from a jury presided over by Roth.
While the jury spread the wealth around, recognizing films by American, Asian and Latin American helmers, all three Italian-directed titles in competition -- Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, Nanni Moretti's My Mother and Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales -- came up visibly empty-handed.
An honorary Palme was given to French director Agnes Varda, the first female recipient of the award, which was previously presented to Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci.
The Camera d'Or for best first film was awarded to Cesar Augusto Acevedo's Land and Shade, a bleak drama about a Colombian family dwelling in a flame-engulfed farmland. The film proved to be one of the most laureled films of the festival, having already earned the Visionary Prize and the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Prize in the Critics' Week sidebar, where it premiered. Other contenders for the Camera d'Or included Laszlo Nemes for Son of Saul and Natalie Portman for her Israel-set drama, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
The ceremony was hosted by Lambert Wilson and featured a performance of Just a Gigolo by John C. Reilly and the Flyboys. Reilly, who appeared in three Cannes entries this year (The Lobster, Tale of Tales and Les Cowboys), presented the Camera d'Or with Sabine Azema.
"Never have I discussed movies with such depth but generosity and emotion and with such intelligent company," Dolan said near the end of the jury conference, fielding a question from Chaz Ebert about how the jurors had been affected by being "honorary film critics" for two weeks. "I somehow feel like a better person," Dolan added, to which Ethan Coen responded with a wry "You're not."
The full list of winners is as follows:
Palme d'Or: "Dheepan" (Jacques Audiard, France)
Grand Prix: "Son of Saul" (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien, "The Assassin" (Taiwan)
Actor: Vincent Lindon, "The Measure of a Man" (France)
Actress (tie): Emmanuelle Bercot, "Mon roi" (France), and Rooney Mara, "Carol" (U.K.)
Jury Prize: Yorgos Lanthimos, "The Lobster" (Greece-Ireland-U.K.-Netherlands-France)
Screenplay: Michel Franco, "Chronic" (Mexico-France)
Palme d'Honneur: Agnes Varda
Camera d'Or: "Land and Shade" (Cesar Augusto Acevedo, Colombia)
Short Films Palme d'Or: "Waves '98" (Ely Dagher)
Ecumenical Jury Prize: "My Mother" (Nanni Moretti)
UN CERTAIN REGARD Un Certain Regard Prize: "Rams" (Grimur Hakonarson, Iceland-Denmark)
Jury prize: "The High Sun" (Dalibor Matanic, Croatia-Slovenia-Serbia)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, "Journey to the Shore" (Japan-France)
Un Certain Talent Prize: Corneliu Porumboiu, "The Treasure" (Romania)
Special Prize for Promising Futures (tie): "Nahid" (Ida Panahandeh, Iran) and "Masaan" (Neeraj Ghaywan, France-India)
Art Cinema Award: "The Embrace of the Serpent" (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)
Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Prize: "My Golden Days" (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
Europa Cinemas Label: "Mustang" (Deniz Gamze Erguven, France-Turkey-Germany)
Grand Prize: "Paulina" (Santiago Mitre, Argentina-Brazil-France)
Visionary Prize: "Land and Shade"
Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Prize: "Land and Shade"
FIPRESCI Competition: "Son of Saul" (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)
Un Certain Regard: "Masaan"
Critics' Week: "Paulina"