By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 27, 2013 at 9:00AM
"I know that it would be nice to have some drama," Steven Spielberg said at the press conference with his fellow jurors at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday. However, according to the jury's esteemed president, nobody "bumped heads about the films were privileged to see here."
Indeed, the group's decision to award the lesbian coming-of-age drama "Blue is the Warmest Color" with the Palme d'Or was one that pundits had been anticipating for days. Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour story, which takes place in two parts, made waves at the festival with its graphic depiction of the way sexual compatibility impacts the other elements of a relationship shared by two women (played by newcomer Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who were invited to share the prize with their director).
More than that, however, Kechiche's movie succeeds by displaying that same degree of intimacy with his actresses in the scenes when they have their clothes on. For the younger, fragile teen at the center of the plot -- also named Adéle -- blue-haired art student Emma (Seydoux) provides a gateway to experiences far beyond the limitations of her conservative social circle. The tender moments make the explicit scenes especially noteworthy: Kechiche's film is a testament to the possibilities of uncensored storytelling that ignores traditional boundaries without playing for shock value. It's a touching romance first, a savvy assault on buttoned-up standards second, and undoubtedly one of the best movies about nascent adulthood in recent years.
Spielberg himself makes no apologies about directing movies aimed at the largest audiences possible, but as a unit, the Cannes jurors did a fine job highlighting the merits of not playing it safe. This was evident not only in the selection of the winners but the snubs: Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" garnered plenty of accolades for Michael Douglas' performance, but ultimately amounted to a giddy by-the-numbers treatment of the show biz icon -- albeit a skillfully made one. James Gray's "The Immigrant," meanwhile, found plenty of adoration from highbrow critics struck by the director's ability to resurrect a classic story of the American dream gone sour. For that same reason, however, it suffered from the restrictions imposed by Gray's allegiance to existing narrative traditions. "The Immigrant" is impressive in parts but uniformly familiar.
By comparison, another period piece works magnificently against expectations. The Coen brothers' offbeat musical-comedy "Inside Llewyn Davis," which was awarded the Grand Prix, explored the personal dimensions of folk music by maintaining a subdued tone in spite of the catchy melodies populating its world. Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son," which took home the Prix du Jury award, similarly treated a potentially melodramatic premise (two parental units discover their kids were switched at the hospital) with the gentle, observational style that distinguishes all of Kore-eda's movies.
Elsewhere, the jury surprised many critics by awarding Amat Escalante's "Heli," the first competition film that screened at this year's festival, with the directing prize. A disturbing look at a young Mexican man whose sister associated with another local troublemaker, "Heli" ultimately involves that trio's experiences with a group of local criminals who kidnap them and -- in the first scene to garner chatter of scandal at the festival but certainly not the last -- set one of their victims' private parts on fire. Shot with a spare, unflinching style, "Heli" captures an atmosphere of despair that's compellingly tense, even though its appealing aspects eventually grow tiresome. Though it feels half-finished, "Heli" is certainly one of the more notable competition entries to assault audiences with decidedly non-commercial devices and dare them to look away. In that regard, with its early placement in the schedule, it set the stage for "Blue is the Warmest Color." Perhaps the jury meant to acknowledge Escalante for putting them in the right mindset.
Like the movies they singled out, the jury took a seriously methodical approach to their selections, spreading the love among the competition. "The Past," Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to "A Separation," marked the first flat-out great movie to screen in competition. But the similarities in its approach to layered family drama that it shared with the director's previous movie further solidified talent that much of the industry had already acknowledged last year. By giving star Berenice Bejo the prize for best actress -- championing a fiery performance as a single mother trapped between her collapsing relationships with two men -- "The Past" was still celebrated at the end of a very long two weeks in which many festival-goers had a tough time remembering everything they saw. Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," on the other hand, received a fairly lukewarm reception. The jury's decision to award Bruce Dern with best actor put it back in the spotlight for a very specific reason: the rediscovery of a legendary actor overdue for it. Scan the list of finalists and it's hard to disagree: At the end of the day, if the legacy of this year's festival is exclusively defined by the winners, Cannes' potential to shed light on an alternative to mainstream cinema remains assuredly intact.