Split in three: How Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopolous became winners of the Palme d’Or
This article was originally published by Next Best Picture
The jury of the Cannes Film Festival has a long history of finding loopholes in its own rulebook. At the first festival held in 1946, as mentioned in my essay recounting the history of the festival, the jury awarded the first Grand Prix to eleven films from eleven different countries as a triumphant response to the end of World War II and an attempt to promote appreciation for international cinema. The next year the award went to five films, and in the following decades of the festival the award has regularly been awarded to two films at a time. The actual title of the festival’s highest honour has flipped several times over the decades between Palme d’Or and Grand Prix, only to settle for the former in 1975. This tendency towards rule breaking for the sake of spreading the wealth amongst as many films, filmmakers, and nations as possible is one of the reasons why the festival is so greatly appreciated by the film-loving community, and remains unpredictable year after year.
Unlike the highest honour at the American Academy Awards, which awards the Best Picture Oscar to a film’s team of producers, or the Best International Feature Oscar that goes to the film’s country of origin, the Palme d’Or has always gone to film’s director. This is in keeping with the Auteur Theory established by French film critics in the 1950’s, which argues that the direct has the ultimate artistic hand in the filmmaking process. Among the past winners include some of the most recognizable, celebrated filmmakers in history, such as Kurosawa, De Sica, Scorcese, Fosse, Wenders, Welles, Altman, Antonioni, Campion, Kiarastomi, Visconti, Weerasethakul, Demy, Buñuel, Wyler, Wilder, von Trier, Van Sant, and Fellini, to name a few. Included in this list of nearly a hundred (mostly male) names, sits those of a pair of French actresses, Seydoux and Exarchopolous, for their stunning performances in the controversial Abdellatif Kechiche-directed “Blue is the Warmest Colour”.
Of course, there is more to be won at Cannes than the Palme d’Or, and there is more than just one Palme to be won. A swath of adjacent Palme awards have sprung up over the years, such as the Queer Palme, Short Film Palme, Palm Dog (an award given to canine actors), the Caméra d’Or (for first time directors), and the Prix Un Certain Regard, an award given to films with non-traditional style and storytelling technique. As at most major international festivals, the jury also offers awards for the festival’s best actor, actress, screenplay, and director (an award separate, but not mutually exclusive from the Palme d’Or recipient). Despite the existence of these traditional categories, the jury occasionally goes out of their way to give an individual or film a “special mention” prize outside of those already established. This practice was especially popular in the 1950s, with several actors and actresses being awarded special mentions rather than Best Actress or Actor awards. For her Oscar-winning performance in "Come Back, Little Sheba”, Shirley Boothe was given the special mention in 1952. Actors Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner won a join special mention for their performances in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ “The Shop on Main Street”, which went on to win the Oscar for Best International Feature in 1967. Adorably, the entire cast of Charles Walter’s “Lili”, including Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer, were given a special mention “for the charming acting” in 1953. Only two, Tatyana Samoliova for “The Cranes are Flying” and Charles Vanel for “The Wages of Fear”, were awarded for films that also won Palme d’Or. The special mention award has been especially rare over the past few decades, having last been awarded to director Elia Suleiman in 2019 for his film “It Must Be Heaven”.
Since 2002, festival has sporadically awarded a non-competitive Honorary Palme d’Or (originally called the Palme des Palmes when Ingmar Bergman posthumously received the inaugural award in 1997) to a person based on their lifelong contribution to film. As well as a handful of directors, writers, and producers, the award has been given to ten actors over the years:
Woody Allen (2002)
Jeanne Moreau (2003)
Catherine Deneuve (2005)
Jane Fonda (2007)
Clint Eastwood (2009)
Jean-Paul Belmondo (2011)
Jean-Pierre Léaud (2016)
Alain Delon (2019)
Jodie Foster (2021)
Tom Cruise (2022)
In 2003, the Cannes jury awarded Michael Haneke’s “Piano Teacher” three major awards, receiving the Jury Prize (for Haneke), Best Actress for Isabelle Huppert, and Best Actor for Benoît Magimel. Upon the film’s unprecedented success, a rule was established to forbid any film from being awarded this many awards in the future. The exact limit of this rule is up for debate, as two years later both the Palme d’Or and Best Director prize were given to Gus van Sant for his film “Elephant”. This regulation makes sense when considering the festival's foundation of spreading the wealth between multiple titles and nations.
Ten years later, another unprecedented even took place at the 2013 awards ceremony. This year’s competition featured films from Steven Soderbergh, Paolo Sorrentino, the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Asghar Farhadi. The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or ended up being Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche. Of course, this is not the end of the story. While presenting the winner, jury president Steven Spielberg announced “The jury has taken the exceptional step of recognizing the achievement of three artists with the presentation of the Palme d’Or. These artists are Adèle, Léa and Abdellatif Kechiche”.
With this “exceptional step” Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seyoux became only the second and third ever female winners of award (this number has now risen to four with last year’s “Titane” director Julie Ducourna) and the only people ever to win a Palme d’Or for an acting performance that was not “honorary” or “special". Exarchopolous is also the youngest person to ever receive this award.
In a panel interview after the ceremony, Spielberg shared the background reasoning for the jury’s unanimous decision, stating that the members of the jury felt “privileged to have been invited to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning…we were absolutely spellbound by the brilliance of the performances of those two amazing young actresses…and especially the way the director observed his players, the way he just let the characters breathe…”
This high praise indicates performances that were not only excellent in themselves, but essential to the structure, language, and ultimate feeling of the film. Had any other actresses been cast, the film would have turned out completely different. Before and after the film’s Cannes success, the actresses shared insight into their filming experience with scores of interviewers. Frequently asked, of course, were questions about the film’s explicit and lengthy sex scenes, to which the women repeatedly responded with stories about their comfort acting together and the lack of “sexiness” present in the filming of an intimate scene. Their relationship with the film’s director led to even greater moments of controversy. On the red carpet, at the film’s premiere, and at the awards ceremony, the women appear to show nothing but great love and affection for Kechiche. In interviews, however, they share what appears to be great exhaustion from Kechiche’s unorthodox style of improvisational filmmaking and emotionally demanding performances. Though reports of the actresses negative relationship with the director appear to have been exaggerated and perhaps skewed by translation, Kechiche has not done himself any favours with his reaction to what should have been a triumphant moment for himself and his brilliant actresses. He considered the awarding of three Palmes an insult to him as a director, and an act of flagrancy, “Who decreed this new rule and on the strength of what? Can one go around giving Palmes on a whim just because one presides over a festival?”. The past few years of Kechiche’s career have been marred by claims of sexual assault from an unnamed French actress, and unethical work environments from his crew. Meanwhile, Seydoux has gained international success from her role in the two most recent “James Bond” films, and has become a modern staple of the Cannes red carpet due to her work with acclaimed directors such as Wes Anderson, Yorgos Lanthimos, Xavier Dolan, and David Cronenberg in his latest feature “Crimes of the Future”. Exarchopolous continues to work as a familiar face of French cinema, branching out into both dramatic and comedic roles, also making frequent appearances at Cannes.
Considering the unpleasantness that accompanies Kechiche’s name, there is a degree comfort to the knowledge that 2013’s top prize was not totally wasted on an unsavoury character, but served to promote the careers of two terrific young actresses. With this year’s film festival coming to a close, there is no telling what sort of surprises the jury (headed by French actor Vincent Lindon) will surprise us with on Saturday. Given the the festival’s history, some greats are likely to be honoured, while new faces will be introduced to the world.