The tender, sensual lesbian romance "Blue is the Warmest Color: The Life of Adele" won the hearts of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, taking its top honor, the Palme d'Or.
The jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, took the unusual move of awarding the Palme not just to Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche, but also to the film's two stars: Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. The three clutched each other as they accepted the award, one of cinema's greatest honors.
"The film had a beautiful French youth that I discovered during the long time filming the movie," said Kechiche at the festival closing ceremony Sunday. "It taught me a lot about the spirit of freedom."
Exarchopoulos stars in the French film as a 15-year-old girl whose life is changed when she falls in love with an older woman, played by Seydoux. The three-hour film caught headlines for its lengthy, graphic sex scenes, but bewitched festival goers with its heartbreaking coming of age story.
"Life of Adele," which premiered at Cannes just days after France legalized gay marriage, was hailed as a landmark film for its intimate portrait of a same-sex relationship.
"The film is a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning," said Spielberg. "The director didn't put any constraints on the narrative, on the storytelling. He let the scenes play as long as scenes play in real life."
Spielberg called Kechiche ("Games of Love and Chance," ''The Secret of the Gran") a "sensitive, observant filmmaker."
Cannes' feting of "Life of Adele" came the same day tens of thousands of protesters marched against the new law Sunday in Paris, and police clashed with some demonstrators. Seydoux called the film "a witness to our time."
"If it can show everyone tolerance, then it's gratifying," said Exarchopoulos.
But jury member Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director, said current events had no bearing on the decision.
"We were giving awards to cinema," said Mungiu. "Not for political statements."
"Gay marriage is something that many brave states in America are resolving," said Spielberg. "This film actually carries a wry, strong message, a very positive message."
The Palme d'Or, which the jury selected from the 20 films in competition at Cannes, had been viewed as a relatively wide-open race ahead of Sunday's awards. The festival audience embraced the jury's choice, giving Kechiche and his two stars a standing ovation. "Life of Adele" had ranked highest in critics polls at the French Riviera festival.
The jury otherwise spread the awards around.
The Coen brothers' 1960s folk revival "Inside Llewyn Davis" earned the Grand Prix, Cannes' second most prestigious award. The film's breakout star, Oscar Isaac, accepted the award for the Coens, who won the Palme in 1991 for "Barton Fink."
Best actor went to 76-year-old Bruce Dern for Alexander Payne's father-son road trip "Nebraska." Berenice Bejo, the "Artist" star, won best actress for her performance as a single mother balancing a visiting ex-husband and a new fiancé in Asghar Farhadi's "The Past."
The jury prize, Cannes' third top award, went to Kore-eda Hirokazu's gentle switched-at-birth drama "Like Father, Like Son." Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante took best director for his brutal drug war drama "Heli." Best screenplay went to Zhangke Jia's "A Touch Of Sin," a four-part depiction of the violence wrought by China's economic boom.
Singaporean director Anthony Chen won the Camera d'Or, the award for best first feature, for his "Ilo Ilo." Set during the Asia financial crisis in 1997, the film is about a Singaporean family and its new maid.
Spielberg, whose jury also included Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz, said the group bonded immediately, joking: "I wanted to take them all home with me."
The Palme d'Or can catapult a filmmaker to international renown, and significantly raise the profile of a film. "Life of Adele" was picked up for U.S. distribution during Cannes by IFC's Sundance Selects. Last year's winner, Michael Haneke's "Amour," went on to win best foreign language film at the Oscars, as well as land the rare best picture nomination for a foreign film. In 2011, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" topped Cannes.
Sunday's awards encompassed films from France, Japan, the United States, Mexico, China and Singapore.
Said Spielberg: "We crossed the world through these films."