Cannes - Stars paraded on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival one last time ahead of the awarding of the coveted Palme d'Or top prize on Sunday, as suspense mounted over one of the tightest races in years.
An epic lesbian love story, a patchwork family drama by an Iranian Oscar winner and a Coen Brothers dark comedy led the contenders, with a handful of other entries hot on their heels.
Steven Spielberg's festival jury, packed with fellow Oscar winners Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee and Christoph Waltz among other luminaries, deliberated throughout the day in a secluded villa in the hills above the French Riviera resort.
Danish heart-throb Mads Mikkelsen, New Zealand director Jane Campion, French model and actress Laetitia Casta and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein joined celebrities marching up the Festival venue's famed steps for the awards ceremony as the sun began setting over the Mediterranean.
Twenty films featured in competition at the world's top cinema showcase, and reviewers said at least a quarter of them looked like possible winners of the coveted Golden Palm.
"It's a testament to the strength of this year's competition slate... that no single runaway favourite seems to have declared itself," wrote film industry bible Variety.
Critics swooned over French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche's coming-of-age tale Blue is the Warmest Colour about a 15-year-old girl's first love, an older woman.
An audacious three hours in length, the picture traces lead character Adele's (Adele Exarchopolous) infatuation with a beautiful blue-haired art student played by rising star Lea Seydoux, while also exploring themes such as class in France and women's careers.
"Sure to raise eyebrows with its show-stopping scenes of non-simulated female copulation, the film is actually much more than that: it's a passionate, poignantly handled love story," a Hollywood Reporter critic said.
"Remarkably, though, the explicit scenes never really feel pornographic, especially since the film isn't about titillation or arousal."
It topped critics' polls in trade journals Screen International and Film Francais as well as London bookmakers' rankings.
But reviewers wondered whether the jury would shy away from rewarding its lengthy depictions of on-screen lovemaking - among the most explicit in Cannes competition history.
Iranian Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi made a strong showing early in the festival with The Past, an intricately structured drama about a separated Iranian-French couple set in Paris starring Berenice Bejo of The Artist.
Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis starring Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and newcomer Oscar Isaac in the title role delighted audiences with a mix of soulful 1960s folk singing and absurdist humour.
The Coens' film Barton Fink won Cannes in 1991 and the brothers last entered the running in 2007 with No Country for Old Men.
Other plausible contenders included US director Alexander Payne's recession-era road movie Nebraska, lush Roman society portrait The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino, and an emotional Japanese family drama about young boys switched at birth, Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son.
In a year in which gay themes resonated on and off screen, Steven Soderbergh's made-for-TV biopic of celebrity pianist Liberace and his long-time lover, Behind the Candelabra, drew praise for its A-list stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
A win for that picture or Blue would come on the day of a major demonstration in Paris against a new law making France the 14th country to legalise same-sex marriage.
Boos and walkouts
Few films left audiences entirely cold, and the biggest disappointments met with loud booing and mass walkouts.
Critics savaged one of the most highly anticipated entries, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn's latest pairing with Canadian star Ryan Gosling after Drive captured the best director prize two years ago.
Only God Forgives set among the fight clubs of today's Bangkok brought an onslaught of torture and gore, and reviewers hissed their disapproval as the credits rolled.
And queasy viewers ran for the aisles during Mexican director Amat Escalante ultra-violent Heli about his country's blood-drenched drug wars.
French drama Amour, about an ageing Parisian couple, took the Palme d'Or last year.
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