CANNES (Reuters) - An intimate lesbian love story by French director Abdellatif Kechiche won the top prize at the 2013 Cannes festival on Sunday, ending 12 packed days of premieres, celebrity appearances, rain and dramatic jewelry thefts.
"La Vie d'Adele - Chapitre 1 & 2" (Blue is the Warmest Colour) was chosen from a field of 20 films exploring sex, violence and emotional anguish which were vying for the Palme d'Or, one of the most coveted film awards after the Oscars.
Critics had picked the three-hour film as a possible winner at the 66th Cannes festival but queried whether its no-holds-barred lesbian sex scenes would be a deterrent to the jury deciding the awards led by U.S. filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
In an unusual move, Spielberg said the award to Kechiche would be shared with his two lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos as they were central to the film's success.
"I think it will get a lot of play ... I think this film carries a very strong message, a very positive message," Spielberg told a news conference.
"It was the perfect choice between those two actresses and this incredible very sensitive and observant filmmaker."
Spielberg said he was a firm supporter of same-sex marriage but downplayed any suggestion that the award was to promote this cause, as did the actresses who described the film as a "modern love story" rather than a purely gay film.
Kechiche, an actor who made his directorial debut in 2000, was virtually speechless as he went up on stage to receive his award from American actress Uma Thurman.
"As you know I always take my time. I always need time to reflect before starting. It is my rhythm, I am sorry," he said.
He dedicated the award to the youth of France and also of Tunisia, where he was born, praising their strength in the Arab Spring as those "who wanted only to live, speak and love freely".
"La Vie d'Adele" is an emotional tale of love and sexuality centered on 15-year-old Adele (Exarchopoulos) and her lover Emma (Seydoux).
The competition was an open field before Sunday's award ceremony. Another forerunner, the quirky comedy "Inside Llewyn Davis" about a struggling New York folk singer by the American Coen brothers Ethan and Joel, was named as runner-up.
The third prize went to Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu for the baby-swapping drama "Soshite Chichi Ni Naru" (Like Father, Like Son) while the best director award went to Mexico's Amat Escalante for his brutal look at Mexico's drug war, "Heli".
The award for best actor went to American Bruce Dern, 76, from Alexander Payne's film "Nebraska" in which he played an ageing, alcoholic father on a road trip with his son through the depressed Midwestern United States to collect a lottery prize.
French actress Berenice Bejo ("The Artist") won the best actress award for playing the wife in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's tense domestic drama "Le Passe" (The Past).
Before the ceremony, stars from Kim Novak to Laetitia Casta signed autographs and posed for photographers on the red carpet in blazing sunshine, a contrast to the festival's opening ceremony on May 15 when umbrellas took over in the rain.
The awards ended the world's largest film festival which is also the top film marketplace of the year where up to 40,000 film professionals buy, sell and fund films, while celebrities galore pose and preen to promote new projects.
There were also two jewelry thefts in Cannes worthy of a Hollywood movie - a $2.6 million diamond necklace went missing after a party and $1.4 million worth of gems were stolen from a hotel safe.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White and Pravin Char)