French director Rebecca Zlotowski (R) arrives with French actor Henri-Noel Tabary (L), French actor Benoit Magimel (2ndL), French actress Clotilde Courau (C) and French-Algerian model Zahia Dehar for the screening of the film 'A Hidden Life' at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 19, 2019. (AFP/Antonin Thuillier)
A film starring a former under-age escort at the heart of a scandal that shook the French football team won one of the top prizes at the Cannes film festival Thursday.
An Easy Girl was named the best film in the Directors' Fortnight section with the judges lavishing particular praise on the big screen debut of Zahia Dehar, who made headlines when she was allegedly paid for sex when she was 17 by French soccer stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema.
The players were acquitted of all criminal charges in 2014 when a Paris court ruled that they had been unaware of her age.
Zahia, now 27, plays a "glamazon" party girl who leads her 16-year-old cousin through a summer of sexual and political awakening amid the nouveau riche jet set on the French Riviera.
Critics had heaped praise on the Algerian actress's performance, with the Hollywood Reporter comparing her "pouty, performative femininity" to 1960s French screen siren Brigitte Bardot.
Known simply as Zahia in France where she is a stalwart of gossip magazines, Dehar has traded her trashy reputation for social media fame and her own lingerie brand.
But now a film career seems to beckon.
The film's 39-year-old director Rebecca Zlotowski faced stiff competition for the top award from the equally rapturously received psychological thriller, The Lighthouse, by US director Robert Eggers that starred Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Reclaims 'easy girl' insult
Eggers' previous film from 2015, The Witch, is regarded as a horror classic.
But Dehar and fellow newcomer Mina Farid's "eye-catching" performances in An Easy Girl helped win over the jury.
Its head Dominique Sampiero called the film "troubling and fascinating" and said the jury wanted to reward Dehar and her "suggested figure of an escort girl who reads (Marguerite) Duras, which makes the story a modern morality fable... a kind of Unbearable Lightness of Womanhood."
He said her character brings the film "a strange innocence which allow her to escape the humiliations of male domination and leaves us feeling an infinite tenderness".
Zlotowski has a gift for rendering sensuality on screen. She scored a critical hit with her 2013 film Grand Central with her pairing of actors Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim hailed as "generating off-the-scale sexual electricity".
Dehar told AFP that the she hoped the movie may help to reclaim the insult "easy girl" which had been thrown at women for centuries.
"Easy girl isn't pejorative, for me it's extremely positive. It's a woman who is at ease with her sexuality and is the equal of a man.
"It's a term that was invented by society to imprison women," she said.
Meanwhile, an animated film about a hand with a life of its own won the top prize in the parallel Critics' Week section.
I Lost My Body, a darkly comic French tale was co-written by Guillaume Laurant, who was nominated for an Oscar for Amelie.
The highly original story directed by Jeremy Clapin follows a severed hand trying to find its way home.
The two other main winners at Critics' Week were Vivarium, Lorcan Finnegan's surreal Irish suburban nightmare, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, who won the rising star award for A White, White Day, which was set in his homeland.
There was also a prize for the Guatemalan film Our Mothers about the massacres of indigenous people there between the 1960s and 1980s.
The festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, will be awarded late Saturday.
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