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Director Jacques Audiard, Palme d'Or award winner for his film "Dheepan", poses during a photocall after the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, May 24, 2015.

YVES HERMAN/REUTERS

Another Cannes, another head-scratcher. How to explain the surprising – and disappointing – choice of the film Dheepan as the winner of this year's Palme d'Or? French director Jacques Audiard's heartfelt but unremarkable film is about a Sri Lankan war refugee and his makeshift family, who emigrate to France only to find themselves back in a war zone in the drug-infested projects on the outskirts of Paris.

Mr. Audiard is a fine director. He previously directed the romantic drama Rust and Bone, which played at Cannes in 2012, and the superb crime drama A Prophet, which won the Grand Prix – the festival's runner-up prize – in 2009. But Cannes critics did not rate Dheepan, which takes an improbable turn in its final act, as his best work.

This year's Grand Prix winner, Son of Saul, feels like an intellectually and artistically weightier film. The first feature from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, it traces 36 hours in the life of a sonderkommando inmate, one of the workers in Nazi death camps who were forced to assist in the disposal of gas chamber victims. With a rigorous use of limited perspective, Mr. Nemes creates a story that seems to show much more than it actually does and suggests the horrors of the Holocaust in a courageously original way.

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The Jury Prize, or second runner-up, went to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' absurdist and amiably deadpan The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in a story about a future world where people who can't find mates must be turned into animals.

Another cinephile favourite was the poetic martial arts drama The Assassin, from Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which had to settle for the best director prize. The Assassin won top scores on the various international polls that are held during the festival, but some reviewers were frustrated by its lack of conventional catharsis.

Almost as surprising as Dheepan's success was the jury's weak support for Todd Haynes' fastidiously made period drama Carol, based on a 1952 lesbian novel from mystery writer Patricia Highsmith. The film appeared to be a shoo-in for a major prize, but its sole award was a shared best-actress nod to Rooney Mara as a shopgirl who falls in love with an older, wealthier woman played by Cate Blanchett. Ms. Rooney's award was shared with French actress Emmanuelle Bercot, who stars in the minor marriage drama My King, which follows a 10-year relationship from the woman's perspective.

None of this should hurt Carol from being a strong contender during next year's awards season, where its polished style and pro-gay message should sit well with Oscar voters.

Of the 19 films in competition, Carol and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's suspense thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent involved in a deep-undercover anti-drug mission, seem the most likely to have significant box-office success.

In other major awards, few could argue with the choice of veteran French actor Vincent Lindon as best actor in Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. The film follows an unemployed, middle-aged factory worker as he takes a job as a box-store security guard, spying on his colleagues. Lindon, who conveys a gruff, wounded dignity, excels in the role of a man caught between need and principles.

The choice of Mexican director Michel Franco's Chronic for best screenplay felt misplaced, though the jury must have felt the need to give this modest but special film some recognition. Chronic is less notable for its story than the quiet economy of its direction and understated performance by Tim Roth as a nurse who cares too deeply for his patients.

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