CANNES, France (Reuters) - Critics hailed the first French victory at the Cannes film festival for 21 years, after the acclaimed classroom drama "Entre Les Murs" (The Class) won the Palme d'Or for best picture late on Sunday.
The triumph marked another high point for French cinema, which has already celebrated a rare best actress Oscar for Marion Cotillard and a home-made box office hit "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis," seen by about 20 million people.
Screen legend Catherine Deneuve won a special prize along with Clint Eastwood before the festival wound up and hundreds of journalists and industry executives left for home on Monday.
This year's festival had the usual blend of Hollywood glamour and hard-hitting independent cinema and, while studios were less willing to splash out in the expensive Riviera resort, there was plenty of late-night revelry despite unseasonal rain.
Big names such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Eastwood, Penelope Cruz, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, as well as sports stars Mike Tyson and Diego Maradona trod the famous red carpet this year.
"The Class" is a naturalistic portrayal of a tough Parisian high school where a teacher battles to maintain discipline, and touches on hot issues in France such as overcrowded classes and immigrant youth, although the film is not overtly political.
The last-minute entry, shown at the very end of the competition, captivated audiences.
"I can never remember a clearer winner," said Mark Cousins, a film critic and Cannes veteran, adding that "The Class" had helped rescue an otherwise generally flat competition.
"Twenty minutes into the film I thought this had to be the Palme d'Or winner since it was a work of such exception."
Director Laurent Cantet said his cast of young actors was moved when they watched the film for the first time.
"I think they felt that the film talked about them, about their world and they had the feeling that they'd done something important," he told Reuters before jury head Sean Penn awarded the Palme d'Or to what he called "an extraordinary film."
The jury's choices on the final night were mostly popular.
Benicio del Toro won best actor for his portrayal of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's film and the best actress award went to Sandra Corveloni in the Brazilian drama "Linha de Passe."
The Grand Prix runner-up prize went to Italy's "Gomorra" (Gomorrah), Matteo Garrone's hard-hitting film about the camorra Naples crime network, and Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan won best director for "Three Monkeys," a dark tale of family secrets.
There were some surprises at the red carpet ceremony, which brought the curtain down on the 12-day movie marathon.
Israeli animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir" went unrecognized, despite being praised for its haunting retelling of a conscript's efforts to dig up buried memories of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps.
Eastwood was in competition with "The Exchange" starring Jolie as a 1920s mother whose son goes missing.
Some French media grumbled that the Hollywood veteran failed to win a major honor.
Le Figaro newspaper called his special award a "chocolate medal," a consolation prize which it suggested might have explained his absence from the closing ceremony.
"No empty seat has ever been as obvious as this."
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Editing by Andrew Dobbie