The perennial bridesmaid became the bride Sunday night at the Festival de Cannes. French director Jacques Audiard, who has been here numerous times starting with his first film in 1994, finally won the Palme d'Or for "Dheepan."
An intense, emotionally involving piece, "Dheepan" tells the story of a trio of Tamil-speaking exiles from Sri Lanka trying to reconstruct their lives in France. Director Audiard, looking a bit dazed, said, "I'm very touched" and then cracked, "I'm glad Michael Haneke didn't have a film this year," a reference to 2009, when Audiard's "Le Prophet" came in an unexpected second to Haneke's "The White Ribbon."
The Palme win, which came as a surprise to most observers, perhaps indicated either a career award or the inevitable jury room compromises. It also meant that the films that most people thought might win the Palme d'Or had to settle for lesser prizes.
Hungarian director László Nemes' "Son of Saul," the only debut feature in the competition, ended up with the runner-up Grand Prize to add to the International Critic's Prize FIPRESCI award it won on Saturday.
Made with formidable confidence and visual dynamism, "Son of Saul" is a Holocaust film unlike any other. Set in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it manages to look at the camp's unimaginable charnel house horrors directly while still keeping them at the periphery of the frame. Instead we follow the obsessive quest of a member of the Sonderkommandos, the prisoners charged with disposing of the death camp corpses, as he searches for a rabbi to bury a boy he says is his son.
"The Assassin," the first feature film in eight years for Hou Hsiao-Hsien, won the director prize for the Taiwanese auteur.
Bringing his deliberate, austere style to the normally energetic wuxia genre of martial arts, Hou has made a hypnotically involving (if inevitably slow) film of surpassing elegance and style anchored by the swooningly beautiful cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bing.
Todd Haynes' gorgeous "Carol," a particular favorite of the American critics, had a rockier time, doing no better than splitting the actress prize with France's Emmanuelle Bercot of the lightly regarded "Mon Roi." More than that, the prize went to only one of the two inextricably linked actresses who gave excellent performances, with Rooney Mara getting the nod and Cate Blanchett unaccountably left out in the cold.
An inescapably moving love story between two women that is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and set in 1952, "Carol" is restrained melodrama joined with high art and brought to vivid life by Ed Lachman's gorgeous cinematography and Haynes' impeccable direction.
The actor award went to France's reliable Vincent Lindon, star of "The Measure of a Man," playing a former factory worker coping with the humiliations of being fired and the moral dilemmas presented by a new job.
Clearly not in a happy mood, the jury gave its two other prizes to decidedly downbeat works. The scenario prize (for screenplay) went to Mexican writer-director Michel Franco for his English-language "Chronic," featuring a strong Tim Roth as a home-care nurse specializing in harrowing terminal illnesses.
And the festival's Jury Prize went to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' English-language "The Lobster." This is a strange and disturbing science-fictionish look at the bleakest possible future, a dystopia in which newly single people who do not mate within 45 days are literally transformed into the animal of their choice.
Though festival juries try hard to distribute prizes widely, not every strong film in competition manages an award. Two of the better ones that came away empty-handed were "Our Little Sister" and "Youth"
The first film is the latest from Japan's humanistic Hirokazu Kore-eda. Though his quiet, subtle character dramas go against the contemporary grain, this tale of three sisters in their 20s who invite their 15-year-old half-sister to live with them charmed audiences with its quiet observations on the complexities of family relationships.
"Youth" is yet another quixotic, idiosyncratic but still moving meditation by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (the Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty") on what is finally important in life. The film was energized by its acting, especially a winning performance by its 82-year-old star, Michael Caine.
Not every strong film at Cannes was shown in the main competition. One of the most talked about was Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking "Amy," an unblinking documentary look at the short and troubled life of bravura British singer Amy Winehouse, tragically dead at age 27.
Using the same techniques he brought to his earlier "Senna," Kapadia avoids talking heads and includes generous samples of the singer-songwriter's electric performances. The film also puts a relentless British tabloid culture on display and raises questions about the responsibility of people close to Winehouse for her condition.
When things threatened to get too serious in the artistic part of Cannes, I took refuge in the Marché du Film, the enormous market that unapologetically focuses on buying and selling.
Although a lot of the market this year seemed to involve violent and scary genre items like "Raiders of the Lost Shark" and "Thirteen Terrors" ("the most popular horror series in Thailand"), there was a silver lining: a wave of heroic-dog movies. These included "Bark Ranger," "Paw" ("Inspired by a Hero Dog") and the enigmatically titled "A.R.C.H.I.E." ("Part Dog. Part Machine. Totally Awesome.")
The best experience I had this year, however, was not at the Marché or the main Cannes competition. It was a screening at the competing Directors' Fortnight event, where I managed to snare a look at Arnaud Desplechin's highly anticipated "My Golden Days."
Best known for "A Christmas Tale" and "My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument" and a bigger name in France than in the U.S., Desplechin has crafted a warm and tender memory film, both intoxicating and insightful, inspired by the life-changing intensity of his teenage first love.
I ended up by chance at the film's evening premiere, and the reception from the largely French crowd was electric. The entire audience stood and clapped rhythmically for close to 15 minutes as Desplechin repeatedly hugged his young cast, many of whom were in tears. Anyone with doubts about the irreplaceable nature of the theatrical experience would have had them swept away by that magical night.