Carol and The Lobster had all the "buzz", but Jacques Audiard's powerful drama Dheepan came away with the top prize. Is this the most surprising Cannes yet?

When it was announced that the Coen brothers would be chairing the main competition jury at Cannes this year, festival-goers and film critics alike wondered if a little mischief was in store.

But the audience and members of the media at the Palmarès awards ceremony on Sunday night were largely baffled when the Coens’ jury awarded the Palme d’Or, the most prestigious prize in world cinema, to Dheepan, a relatively low-profile crime drama about a family of Tamil immigrants living in Paris by the French director Jacques Audiard.

This is the third time Audiard has had a film in contention for the honour. The others were the eccentric, killer-whale-training melodrama Rust & Bone, in 2012, and the prison thriller A Prophet, which won the Grand Prix, Cannes’ prize for second place, in 2009.

Dheepan: Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or winner is about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior who flees to France Credit: Festival de Cannes

The award came as a shock not because Audiard’s film had been particularly badly received, but because it had failed to generate much "buzz" – that unquantifiable airborne charge at Cannes that gets cinephiles excitedly chattering in queues, barging though crowds to get to catch-up screenings, and feuding over a film’s perceived merits or otherwise over the evening’s second bottle of rosé. 

The three films that had dominated conversation on the Croisette were The Assassin, a lyrical martial-arts drama from Hou Hsiao-Hsien; Todd Haynes’s Carol, a lesbian romance starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; and Son of Saul, a blistering Holocaust drama from the first-time Hungarian director László Nemes.

In the end, all three of those films were rewarded elsewhere: Hou won best director, Rooney Mara shared the best actress prize with Emmanuelle Bercot, who played a lovesick lawyer in Maïwenn’s romantic melodrama Mon Roi, and Son of Saul was a popular choice for the Grand Prix.

Perhaps Dheepan’s buzz was unfairly stifled: it screened to a thinned-out and bleary crowd at 8.30am on the day after the 1am premiere of Gaspar Noé’s sexually explicit 3D film Love, which was – until critics saw it, at least – the hottest ticket in town.

Jury members Rossy de Palma, Xavier Dolan, Sienna Miller, Sophie Marceau, jury president Joel Coen and jury member Jake Gyllenhaal (photo: Reuters) Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

But the Coens’ jury, which also included the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the actresses Sienna Miller, Sophie Marceau and Rossy de Palma, the directors Guillermo del Toro and Xavier Dolan, and the singer Rokia Traoré, would have seen it with rather fresher pairs of eyes.

From a film critic’s point of view, these awards were mostly exasperating, and not only because my predictions were, once again, a seven-for-seven clean sweep of bad calls. The benefits a film like The Assassin will glean from a top-level endorsement from a Cannes jury are enormous: last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, was a three-and-a-quarter-hours-long breezeblock of Chekhovian introspection, and yet the award was enough to earn it a reasonable cinema release in the UK.

Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (2ndR), actress Shu Qi (2ndL) and actor Chang Chen (R), cast members of the film The Assassin pose on the red carpet Credit: Reuters/Reuters

Hou’s film, which leaves (the perfectly good) Winter Sleep in its dust in every respect, is among the very best films I have ever seen at Cannes, and one of the most purely beautiful I have ever seen anywhere – but its pace is so meditative, and its storyline so opaque, that potential distributors might think twice before taking it on. (Audiard’s films, being a) fast-moving and b) from France, as opposed to somewhere farther-flung, don’t come up against this problem.) Hopefully the director’s prize, coupled with its avalanche of critical praise, will be enough to allow it to take an honest run at the arthouse circuit.

Carol seems destined for bigger things when the Oscars and Baftas roll around, so its lack of a Palme d’Or won’t pose much of a problem – and there is a certain, counterintuitive and very Coen-esque brilliance in singling out Mara, as opposed to her far better-known co-star Blanchett, for particular praise.

Destined for bigger things: Cate Blanchett in Carol Credit: Festival de Cannes

And I should add that I was particularly pleased to see her share the prize with Bercot, who is very differently excellent in Mon Roi, a far looser, ragged-edged and intensely French melodrama, and a film whose heart-on-sleeve emotions became a fashionable target for sneers.

In fact, this was a great year for France overall: the Palme d’Or, a shared Best Actress prize, and also Best Actor, which went to the lugubrious Vincent Lindon for his widely acclaimed performance in the socially-aware recession drama The Measure of a Man from Stéphane Brizé.

Of course, it could be argued that by front-loading the programme with five French films (the next most widely-represented country was the USA, with arguably four "American" films in competition, the niceties of their various financing structures aside), the home team was unlikely to leave empty-handed.

There was some good news for the UK and Ireland too: The Lobster, a surreal black comedy starring Colin Farrell as a divorcé trying to survive in a bizarre processing plant for singletons, was given the Jury Prize, the festival’s bronze medal. The film was co-written by its Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, but his cruel and despairing sense of humour translates well to English.

Perhaps because of the Coens’ own fondness for the macabre, bookies had The Lobster as the 5/2 favourite to win the Palme d’Or, with Dheepan a relatively distant 12/1 outsider. But once again, Cannes has retained the element of surprise.