Ceylan's three-hour-plus dark and atmospheric film was only the second Turkish movie to win the top award at the world's most prestigious film festival, and the director noted that it came on the 100th anniversary year of Turkish film.
He dedicated the honour to "those who lost their lives during the last year", adding that he was referring to the youth of his country and to unrest in Turkey. "These young people actually taught us a lot of things.
Some of them sacrificed their lives in a way for us," Ceylan said later at a news conference. Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher took the second-place prize for a coming-of-age story set in the Tuscan countryside as a family tries to eke out a bohemian life making honey.
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Twenty-five-year-old Canadian director Xavier Dolan's film Mommy shared the third-place prize with octogenarian French director Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language) that uses 3D imagery to stunning effect. An emotional Dolan said he thought the jury may have twinned him with Godard, an inventor of 'New Wave' film, "because of our respective searches for freedom in cinema".
American director Bennett Miller won the best director award for Foxcatcher, British actor Timothy Spall won best actor for Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner and Julianne Moore was named best actress in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars. Spall, best known to cinema audiences as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films, said he felt proud to win the award. "I'm like a bewildered 16-year-old girl, or boy," he said.
"I'm so astounded by this award, it's amazing." Leviathan by Russia's Andrei Zvyagintsev took the prize for best screenplay. "It was an extremely diverse ensemble — films that were classical, films that were radical, films that were about the future of cinema," jury member and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn said after the awards were announced. Hollywood Reporter critic Stuart Kemp told Reuters there were "no surprises with the awards going to predictable places".
Critics had applauded Winter Sleep as one of the standout films in a festival that was somewhat short on fireworks, with the French newspaper Le Monde calling it "magnificent".
Variety critic Justin Chang called it a "sprawling, character-rich portrait of a self-absorbed Anatolian hotelier and his uneasy relationships with those around him".
The only other Turkish film to win the Palme was Yilmaz Guney and Serif Goren's The Way (1982). Jury head Jane Campion said she had been daunted by the running length of three hours and 16 minutes but said "it had such a beautiful rhythm — I could have stayed there a couple more hours". "The real gift of this film is how honest it is," she said. Campion, the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or, said it had not mattered to her or the jury whether a man or woman won.
Despite its setting in the vast Anatolian steppe, the film's atmosphere is almost claustrophobic as it shows a rich man and former actor named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) who uses his intellect and position to bully his tenants and beat his wife and sister into intellectual submission.
Ceylan was peppered with questions during the festival about a recent coalmine disaster in Turkey, and about unrest and whether his film was trying to explore these themes.
He said current events were important for him, but what his films really were about was human nature. This year's festival had its share of glitz and glamour, with Nicole Kidman playing Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco, the widely panned film that opened the festival but was not in competition.
Those making a requisite turn down the red carpet flanked by tuxedo-wearing photographers included Sophia Loren, Sharon Stone, Aishwarya Rai, Uma Thurman and John Travolta, Eva Longoria, Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain.