Julia Ducournau has become only the second female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or in the 74-year history of the Cannes Film Festival for her body-horror thriller Titane.
The win was mistakenly announced by jury president Spike Lee at the start of the closing ceremony, broadcast in France on Canal+, unleashing a few moments of confusion.
Ducournau, a French filmmaker, did not come to the stage to accept the award until the formal announcement at the end of the ceremony, but the early hint did not diminish from her emotional response.
“I’m sorry, I keep shaking my head,” said Ducournau, catching her breath. “Is this real? I don’t know why I’m speaking English right now, because I’m French. This evening has been so perfect because it was not perfect.”
After several false starts, Lee implored Sharon Stone to make the Palme d’Or announcement, explaining: “She’s not going to mess it up.”
The problems started earlier when Lee was asked to say which prize would be awarded first. Instead, he announced the evening’s final prize, as fellow juror Mati Diop plunged her head into her hands and others rushed to stop him.
Lee, himself, spent several moments with his head in his hands before apologising profusely for taking a lot of the suspense out of the evening.
“I have no excuses,” Lee told reporters afterwards. “I messed up. I’m a big sports fan. It’s like the guy at the end of the game who misses the free throw or misses the kick.”
“I messed up,” he added. “As simple as that.”
Ducournau’s win was a long-awaited triumph. The only previous female filmmaker to win Cannes’ top honour was Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993.
In recent years, frustration at Cannes’ gender parity has grown, including in 2018, when 82 women – including Agnes Varda, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek – protested against gender inequality on the Cannes red carpet.
Their number signified the movies by female directors selected to compete for the Palme d’Or – 82 compared to 1,645 films directed by men. This year, four out of 24 films up for the Palme were directed by women.
In 2019, another genre film – Boon Joon Ho’s Parasite – took the Palme before going on to win best picture at the Academy Awards, too.
That choice was said to be unanimous by the jury led by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but the award for Titane – an extremely violent film – came out of a democratic process of conversation and debate among the jury.
Juror Maggie Gyllenhaal said they didn’t agree unanimously on anything.
“The world is passion,” said Lee. “Everyone was passionate about a particular film they wanted and we worked it out.”
In Titane, Agathe Rousselle plays a serial killer who flees home. As a child, a car accident leaves her with a titanium plate in her head and a strange bond with automobiles.
In possibly the most-talked-about scene at the festival, the character is impregnated by a Cadillac. Lee called that scene a singular experience.
“This is the first film ever where a Cadillac impregnates a woman,” said Lee, who said he wanted to ask Ducournau what year the car was. “That’s genius and craziness together. Those two things often match up.”
The Grand Prix award was a joint honour split between Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama A Hero and Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s Apartment No 6.
Best director was awarded to Leos Carax for Annette, the fantastical musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard which opened the festival.
The award was accepted by the musical duo Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael, who wrote the script and music for the film.
Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee, an impassioned drama about creative freedom in modern Israel, won the jury prize.
Caleb Landry Jones took home the best actor prize for his performance as an Australian mass killer in the fact-based Nitram by Justin Kurzel.
Renate Reinsve won best actress for Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.
The Croatian coming-of-age drama Murina, by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, took the Camera d’Or award, a non-jury prize, for best first feature. Kusijanovic was absent from the ceremony after giving birth a day earlier.
Lee was the first black jury president at Cannes. His fellow jury members were: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Song Kang-ho, Tahar Rahim, Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner, Kleber Mendonca Filho and Mylene Farmer.