CANNES — “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s sweeping and sexually explicit drama about a French teenage girl’s love affair with another woman, received the Palme d’Or at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night. In a history-making decision, the Steven Spielberg-led jury opted not only to give the first Palme d’Or to a gay romantic drama, but to present the accolade jointly to three artists: Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche and French actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.
With its 175-minute running time (the longest of any film in competition) and graphic lesbian sex scenes, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” dominated festival conversation following its first press screenings on Wednesday night and was swiftly acquired for Stateside distribution by IFC’s Sundance Selects. Still, audiences at the Palais des Festivals were held in some suspense until the final moments of the ceremony, as Exarchopoulos’ presence had led many to assume she had won the actress prize, which would have technically prevented “Blue” from also winning the Palme.
This is the second year in a row that the festival’s top prize has gone to a French-language feature, as Austrian helmer’s Paris-set drama “Amour” won in 2012. It also represents a rare instance of a director winning Cannes’ top prize for his first film in competition; Kechiche’s previous two films, “The Secret of the Grain” (2007) and “Black Venus” (2010), bowed in competition at the Venice Film Festival (where “Grain” was a multiple prizewinner).
At a press conference following the ceremony, Spielberg described Kechiche’s film as “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. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative. He let the scenes play in real life, and we were absolutely spellbound.”
While the presentation of international cinema’s highest honor to this particular film struck a topical note at a time when the gay-marriage debate continues to rage (France just legalized it last week), Spielberg rejected the idea that politics had influenced the jury’s decision. “As you know, the characters in this film do not get married,” he said. “Politics were never in the room with us.” He also said that the decision to honor thesps Exarchopoulos and Seydoux alongside Kechiche was essential, noting that, “If the casting had been even 3% wrong, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. All of us felt we needed to invite all three artists to the stage together.”
Spielberg added that while he expected the film to play well in the U.S., “I’m not sure it will be allowed to play in every state.”
The jury presented a united front backstage, as Spielberg noted that there had been no behind-the-scenes drama, and that he and his fellow jurors were able to come to a consensus on “at least three of the incredibly important choices.” Juror Nicole Kidman noted that, given their hectic schedule, she asked her jurors to see certain films more than once. In addition to Spielberg and Kidman, the jury included directors Ang Lee, Cristian Mungiu, Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase, and actors Christoph Waltz, Daniel Auteuil and Vidya Balan.