‘Dheepan’ wins Palme d’Or at Cannes

Jury head by Coen brothers picks Jacques Audiard's gritty refugee tale for top prize.

French director Jacques Audiard speaks after being awarded the Palme d’Or during the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2015. Anne-Christine Poujoulat /AFP
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Cannes // Dheepan, a French thriller spotlighting the plight of traumatised refugees building new lives, captured the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday.

As countries around the world grapple with an influx of people fleeing global crises, a jury led by Hollywood filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen chose the gritty picture about Sri Lankan asylum-seekers by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard from among 19 international contenders.

“To receive a prize from the Coen brothers is something pretty exceptional,” Audiard said, clutching the trophy.

“I’m very touched,” he said.

The harrowing Holocaust drama Son of Saul by Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes, offering unflinching depictions of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, claimed the Grand Prize, runner-up for best picture.

“This continent is still haunted by this subject,” Nemes said.

And The Lobster, a surreal, pitch-black comedy about modern love by Greece's Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, bagged the third-place Jury Prize.

Best director honours went to Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien for the visually lush, slow-burn martial arts film The Assassin.

The nine-member panel handed the best-actress trophy to two winners: US star Rooney Mara for the lesbian love story Carol which also stars Cate Blanchett; and France's Emmanuelle Bercot, in the doomed romance Mon roi (My King) by fellow actress-turned-filmmaker Maiwenn.

"I am thrilled to share this with another actress because it's a bit too big for me to carry alone," said Bercot, who had opened the 12-day festival with French social drama Standing Tall, which she directed and co-wrote.

In a strong night for the host country, France's Vincent Lindon won best actor for his moving turn as a job-seeker standing up for his dignity in The Measure of a Man.

Mexican director Michel Franco clinched best screenplay for Chronic starring British actor Tim Roth as a nurse caring for dying patients.

Audiard, a Cannes favourite, specialises in films about broken people looking for fresh starts, as in critical triumphs such as A Prophet, Rust and Bone and The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

In Dheepan, novelist and former child soldier Antonythasan Jesuthasan plays an ex-Tamil Tiger fighter escaping Sri Lanka's brutal civil war.

He and two strangers – a woman and a nine-year-old girl – pretend to be a family to make it to France on fake passports.

Once they arrive in a rough housing estate on the outskirts of Paris, the makeshift family begins to bond and Dheepan must use his battlefield experience to keep the three of them safe from drug gangs waging a turf war.

Antonythasan himself fought for the Tamil Tigers from the age of 16 before making it in 1993 on a fake passport to France, where he was granted political asylum.

Audiard, who spoke to his actors through an interpreter on set, told reporters during the festival that he “couldn’t have placed Sri Lanka on a map” when he started working on the screenplay.

He had rather sought “to approach a love story from a completely different angle” and offer a portrait of his country from the perspective of outsiders looking in.

This year’s selection divided reviewers, with a few stand-out pictures mitigated by a clutch of flops.

Booing made a big comeback as hot-blooded critics made their feelings about the duds known to the world’s press.

Matthew McConaughey's mystical new movie The Sea of Trees directed by Gus Van Sant was loudly jeered as trite and syrupy. A French "fairytale" about brother-sister love, Marguerite and Julien was also booed.

And the hottest ticket at the glamorous 12-day event on the French Riviera, the ultra-graphic 3D sex film Love, left viewers cold.

Cannes would not be Cannes without a dose of offscreen controversy and this year it came in the form of a high-heeled shoe.

Complaints by some women that they were turned away from gala premieres for wearing flat footwear drew charges of sexism and a “stiletto-gate” storm of protest on social media.

Festival director Thierry Fremaux later apologised for “overzealousness” on the part of some security personnel in enforcing the strict Cannes dress code.

The row undermined efforts at Cannes to redress a much-criticised neglect of female filmmakers in its official selection.

Two of the 19 movies in competition for the Palme d’Or were made by women.

Last year the top prize went to an epic drama about Turkey's internal tensions, Winter Sleep by Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

* Agence France-Presse