France's Tamil refugee film Dheepan wins top prize in Cannes, leaves critics dumbfounded

Director Jacques Audiard (centre), Palme d'Or award winner for his film Dheepan, actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan (left) and actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan pose during a photocall after the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in southern F
Director Jacques Audiard (centre), Palme d'Or award winner for his film Dheepan, actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan (left) and actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan pose during a photocall after the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in southern France on May 24, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CANNES (Reuters, Agence France-Presse) - The French film Dheepan won the top Palme d'Or prize for director Jacques Audiard at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival on Sunday, crowning a good night for France but a bad one for Italy and actress Cate Blanchett.

The choice of a film that revolves around the lives of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war moving to France was seen as sending a political message, but the awards overall left some critics and festivalgoers dumbfounded. "It's extremely disappointing, nobody seems happy," Jay Weissberg, European-based critic for trade publication Variety, told Reuters. "It's an anti-climactic finish to a festival that was middling to begin with."

Critic Peter Bradshaw of London's The Guardian expressed disappointment at the jury's choices, saying: "Cannes 2015 was a vintage year. But the prizes were corked."

Audiard, whose movies include A Prophet and Rust And Bone, is "a brilliant director who has accumulated an overwhelmingly deserving reputation but had actually given us something less than his very best work", Bradshaw said.

Ethan Coen, who along with his brother Joel served as co-president of the jury, defended the jury's choices, especially the Palme d'Or winner. "Everybody had an enthusiasm for it, to some degree or another we all thought it was a very beautiful movie," he told a press conference.

Actor and jury member Jake Gyllenhaal got a laugh when he interjected: "It's a good prize."

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes's debut film Son Of Saul, which made a huge impact at the festival for its portrayal by non-professional actor Geza Rohrig of a Jewish "Sonderkommando" forced labourer in the Auschwitz concentration camp, took the Grand Prix second prize.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's surreal English-language film The Lobster, about guests at a posh singles hotel who are turned into animals if they don't find a mate, took the Jury Prize.

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien won best director for the lush, slow-burning martial arts film The Assassin and Mexican director Michel Franco got best screenplay for Chronic.

But three Italian entries among 19 films competing for the Palme d'Or went home empty-handed, as did Blanchett whose performance as a wealthy woman who falls in love with a shopgirl in the lesbian romance Carol won high critical praise.

Instead, Rooney Mara, who plays the shopgirl in director Todd Haynes's film shared the best actress award with France's Emmanuelle Bercot, who stared in director Maiwenn's My King.

Among the Italian films, Nanni Moretti's My Mother, about a woman director whose life spins out of control while her mother is dying, had been tipped as a possible winner.

France's Vincent Lindon, who took the best actor prize for his portrayal in Stéphane Brizé's film The Measure Of A Man of a floorwalker in a supermarket that has a secret plan to get rid of employees to boost the bottom line, was unapologetic about France's strong showing. "It's not because it's in Cannes that we can't receive prizes as other people and this year maybe they wanted to celebrate French cinema," Lindon said.

In Dheepan, novelist and former child soldier Anthonythasan 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 get to France on fake passports.

"I'm very moved. Winning a prize from the Coen brothers is something that is exceptional," Audiard, who has won two smaller Cannes awards in the past, told the closing ceremony. "I'm thinking of my father."

Scott Roxborough, a critic for the trade publication The Hollywood Reporter, said Audiard had been in the running for a Cannes award for a long time. "I don't think it's his best film but it's a hot topic. It honours the director and sends a political message at the same time," Roxborough said.