Beyond the Multiplex

The Cannes Film Festival jury doles out the awards, in a bracing ceremony as notable for who didn't win as who did.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 28, 2007 1:47PM (EDT)

Bienvenue à Cannes, where Romanian cinema rules the earth. I know nothing about Romanian moviegoing habits, and damn little about the country at all. (How did a Romance language get stuck in Eastern Europe, anyway?) But I feel pretty confident that Romanian films are feeling more love in this French resort town right now than they feel in Bucharest.

On the closing weekend of the 60th Festival de Cannes, the limpid, near-summer heat of the French Riviera was washed away by a rainstorm, which was followed by that whipping, punishing Mediterranean wind known here as "le Mistral." Apparently it swept the streets of Cannes clean, like the New York of Travis Bickle's dreams. On Sunday the movie stars had disappeared and the day was breezy and brilliant, with whitecaps chopping crisply across the Baie des Anges. When the jury handed out its prizes, later that night, the results were nearly as bracing.

It was really no surprise that English director Stephen Frears and his jury awarded the Palme d'Or, Cannes' biggest prize, to Cristian Mungiu's film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." That is, the only surprise is that the jury hewed pretty close to conventional wisdom. Mungiu's picture -- which tracks the grim adventures of two girls in Ceausescu-era Romania, one of whom seeks an illegal abortion -- is an outstanding work of low-budget craftsmanship, with exactly the kind of aesthetic rigor and moral seriousness that appeals to festival audiences. (IFC First Take will release the film later this year in the United States, both in theaters and via pay-per-view cable.)

Officially, it's just a coincidence that the grand prize in the Certain Regard category, generally reserved for younger directors or left-field projects, went to another Romanian, Cristian Nemescu, for his film "California Dreamin'." And that last year's Caméra d'Or (Cannes' best-first-film award) went to Corneliu Porimboiu's comedy "12:08 East of Bucharest," and that Cristi Puiu's 2005 film "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which launched Romania's international cinema moment, began at Cannes that year and conquered festivals all over the world. If somebody in Romania does a remake of "Footloose," will it be at Cannes in 2008?

That's facetious, of course; the whole point of this new Romanian cinema, or whatever we should call it, is that it bears zero relationship to Hollywood filmmaking or the business model of the American entertainment megaliths. (Linguists, please: A useful Romanian phrase or two to throw around at film-world parties?) The air of earnest cinephilia around this year's Palmarès, the Oscar-like ceremony that precedes the closing-night film, was about 97 percent refreshing and only 3 percent precious. The evening ran virtually on schedule, and all the major awards went to resolutely noncommercial films.

There was much talk when the festival began about the heavily American flavor of this year's Cannes competition slate, which included David Fincher's "Zodiac," Joel and Ethan Coen's Cormac McCarthy adaptation "No Country for Old Men," James Gray's New York cop thriller "We Own the Night" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" (formerly known as the second chapter of "Grindhouse"). But those guys all went away empty-handed. It would be overstating the case to call this jury's verdict anti-American; the jurors simply behaved as if mainstream American cinema did not exist.

If Cannes programmers wanted to throw a 60th birthday party that celebrated the festival's global reach, eclectic nature and loyalty to the values of art cinema, they succeeded, despite the fact that many of the films that premiered here from name-brand international directors were deemed disappointments. Consider this list of the major award winners: A French film made by an Iranian, and another made by an American. A Mexican film shot in an obscure German dialect. A German film made by the son of Turkish immigrants. A Japanese film whose director remains little known in Japan. A Russian actor who has spent most of his career doing underground theater in Moscow, and a Korean actress who had hardly left her country before coming here. Two Romanian films, and exactly one film made in the U.S. by an American director.

That film was Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," a meditative, skate-teen take on "Crime and Punishment" that was awarded a special thanks-for-coming prize in honor of Cannes' 60th anniversary. I'm on record as finding its arty, deadpan portrayal of teenage life unconvincing (and, more to the point, not terribly interesting) but there's no doubting Van Sant's integrity or visual inventiveness. "Paranoid Park" was without question the least commercial English-language film in the main selection; I wouldn't be surprised if it does more business as a foreign film in Europe than it will at home.

The Jury Prize, which is essentially the third-place award, was a tie between Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's animated "Persepolis" (which many critics favored for the Palme d'Or) and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' severe and beautiful "Silent Light," shot in a remote Mennonite community in the state of Chihuahua. Reygadas set a tone for the evening at the ensuing press conference, saying he hoped his award would help "open paths for directors and writers all over the world who are pursuing cinema outside of the normal narrative modes, and who are using resources and methods not customary in mainstream cinema."

Julian Schnabel won the directing award for his exhilarating "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (my favorite among the competition films I saw), and then foolishly tried to answer questions in mangled, Brooklyn-accented French at the press conference. At an interview session a few days earlier, Schnabel told a group of journalists he'd taken a Xanax to combat anxiety before his film's premiere, and then nearly fallen asleep during it. His demeanor on Sunday night suggested similar pharmaceutical possibilities, if not more elaborate ones. In the long run, the episode will only add to the self-created Schnabel legend (and the movie is still terrific).

Turkish-German director Fatih Akin won the screenwriting award for "The Edge of Heaven," a drama depicting the interlinked lives of a group of Turks and Germans in both countries. (I haven't seen it, but reviews have been strong.) That was a mild surprise, but a much bigger one arrived with the Grand Jury Prize, runner-up to the Palme d'Or. That went to "The Mourning Forest" from Japanese director Naomi Kawase, a film many journalists (myself included) had simply skipped in order to attend other events.

Kawase won the Caméra d'Or (the award for best first film) at Cannes 10 years ago, and has been struggling to make her films in Japan ever since, with little funding or support. Reportedly an enigmatic journey film, with a spiritual component, "The Mourning Forest" got mixed-to-negative reviews here, but I definitely want to see it after witnessing Kawase in person. A striking, sharp-angled woman of 40 or so, she came off as eerily calm and almost luminously confident. When a Japanese reporter asked her if she had anything to say to the film industry back home (which has virtually ignored her), she said she did not. What she hoped to convey in "The Mourning Forest" transcended nationality, she said, and it was that "the invisible is as important as the visible."

Both major acting prizes were also surprises. Brooding, handsome Konstantin Lavronenko won the best-actor award for his role in Andrei Zvyagintsev's "The Banishment," a long and taxing allegorical work in the cryptic tradition of Russian art cinema. A veteran of many years in Moscow's avant-garde theater scene, Lavronenko began his film career at age 42 in Zvyagintsev's terrific first film, "The Return." Lavronenko had already left town, and Zvyagintsev accepted the prize for him. Ordinarily this would be perceived as major disrespect, but you never know with the French; maybe they'll decide Lavronenko is a pure artist who can't be bothered with scrolls and plaques and banks of photographers and magnums of Champagne.

Best actress went to the lovely gamine Jeon Do-yeon, who has already won several Korean film awards for her role in Lee Chang-dong's thriller-cum-melodrama "Secret Sunshine." (If there's one film I'm truly sorry I missed this year, that's it.) Gracious, tearful and clearly overwhelmed, Jeon told the press she'd been delighted to come here at all, and that getting to walk the streets of Cannes had been the only prize she'd expected. A star is born.

Every Cannes jury has distinctive characteristics; if last year's was loaded with star power (headed by Wong Kar-wai, it included Samuel L. Jackson, Monica Bellucci, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter), this year's jury exuded seriousness and avoided the limelight. Asian superstar Maggie Cheung was the only true A-list celebrity on the panel, although the well-loved French actor Michel Piccoli probably qualifies as such on the Continent. Frears' other colleagues included Italian director Marco Bellocchio, Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley, Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, Australian actress Toni Collette, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros.

Always a crusty personality, Frears was glib and totally unforthcoming when reporters tried to press him on the films the jury ignored. Asked twice what he thought of the Coens' "No Country for Old Men" (probably the consensus favorite among journalists) he quickly grew testy: "It's a terrific film. I could sit here all night and tell you I think it's terrific. What do you want? It's dreadful. Awful. We hated it." And what about Javier Bardem's acclaimed performance as a Terminator-esque hit man? "He's a very good actor. Why didn't we give the award to Javier? Because he owes me 500 pounds. Look, at the end of the day you give it to one person, that's all."

Finally, Michel Piccoli, one of the great charmers of French screen history, came to Frears' rescue (or to ours) with a burst of uncharacteristic candor. While the 2006 jurors loyally claimed their choices were unanimous, Piccoli made it clear there were disagreements. "It's impossible to have nine people who all think the same thing about such delicate decisions," he said. "We listened to each other, and everyone defended the ideas closest to our hearts. We all had our own ideas about who should win the prize. I'm not going to talk about the films that disappointed us strongly, but you can figure out which films those might be."

Indeed we can. Along with the Coen brothers' film and Fincher's "Zodiac," the disappointments included new pictures from some of the most respected names in world cinema. Béla Tarr's "The Man From London," Kim Ki-duk's "Breath," Catherine Breillat's "Une Vieille Maîtresse," Alexander Sokurov's "Alexandra" and Emir Kusturica's "Promise Me This" all went conspicuously unmentioned on Sunday night, even by a jury that was seeking to honor challenging, nonmainstream fare. I haven't seen "Breath" or "Alexandra," and the other three deserve more attention than I can give them here. Still, if the jurors found them flawed works that don't represent those directors at their best, they're probably right.

When Cristian Mungiu, the 39-year-old director of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," finally took the podium with his Palme d'Or, he proved to be a likable and level-headed fellow, seemingly unruffled by the media maelstrom. In striking contrast to Schnabel, he fielded questions eloquently in both English and French. Asked how he would celebrate that night, he pointed out that he wasn't likely to run wild on the Croisette, since he was in Cannes with his wife and kids. Gesturing to his cinematographer and co-producer, Oleg Mutu, he said, "We don't live like artists, to be honest. We are our own producers, accountants, secretaries and drivers. We were financing the film while I was rewriting the script and we were casting."

This evening in Cannes was "the best thing ever to happen to Romanian cinema," Mungiu said, adding that without the previous success of directors like Puiu and Porimboiu, he wouldn't be here. Asked what winning the Palme d'Or means, he joked, "I hope it's not the best day of my career. I hope to make many more films, and I hope other things will happen to us later." Like winning an Oscar? "No. This is much more important than the Oscars. That's about something else. This is the ultimate recognition that you are really a filmmaker."

* * * * For more coverage of the Cannes Film Festival, click here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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