Cannes' shocker: "Uncle Boonmee" wins

Thai film surprises by nabbing Palme d'Or, while acting winner Javier Bardem declares his love for Penelope Cruz

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 23, 2010 9:30PM (EDT)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul receives the 2010 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival closing ceremony.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul receives the 2010 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival closing ceremony.

CANNES, France -- I suppose the combination of a jury headed by Tim Burton and a relatively low-wattage competition at the 63rd Festival de Cannes was bound to create some surprises. Clearly the biggest of those arrived when the Palme d'Or, still the most coveted prize in world cinema despite its minimal box-office effect, went to Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." Apichatpong's haunting, dreamlike yarn of a dying man's last internal and external voyages was a critical fave-rave here, and the press room erupted in cheers when Burton made the announcement.

In a post yesterday, I made a first attempt at teasing out some themes in Apichatpong's film and the cinephile fervor surrounding it, but I definitely need to see "Uncle Boonmee" again before I render a verdict. On Sunday night there were two sets of reactions to the prize. On one hand, this may be one of those rare occasions when the Palme d'Or actually has a commercial impact. Apichatpong's infinitesimal audience -- limited so far to the most hardcore of art-film fans -- can only get bigger, and the global headlines resulting from this prize will certainly motivate some curious viewers.

On the other hand, within that very modest box-office potential lies the danger of backlash. "Uncle Boonmee" is a film that defies normal narrative conventions and resists interpretation; if you're not prepared for that, it's likely to be a maddening or offputting experience. While we were in line for the post-awards press conference, one American critic said to me: "I have no problem with that movie existing and going to film festivals and winning awards. But if you tell Americans to go see it, I guarantee they will never give foreign-language films another chance."

With his boyish face and skin-tight haircut, 40-year-old Apichatpong resembles the Buddhist monks who frequently appear in his films. (Although the white tuxedo he wore tonight disrupts the analogy somewhat.) He told us winning this award was a "very special and very surreal situation," noting that he was almost unable to come to France because of ongoing social political strife in Thailand, pitting working-class supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra against an elite that supports the monarchy.

"This award means a lot to me in my profession as a filmmaker," Apichatpong said, "but Thailand needs hope in other ways. It is a very serious situation. We are very depressed about this confrontation between different ideologies, and I hope the news that Thailand has won an award for art and culture may help to calm the situation."

Apichatpong went on to say that he hopes his victory here will inspire young people to try something new. "We have become too much of a monoculture, with the same logic of narrative," he said. "Minority cultures have been prevented from discovering their own ways of doing things. The movies we make now are so shallow. It becomes harder and harder to make this kind of personal cinema, but this prize can mean a lot. I hope it can help sustain a diversity of different voices."

Cannes' best-actress prize went to Juliette Binoche -- predictably ravishing in an elegant white gown and diamond necklace -- for her role in Abbas Kiarostami's intriguing almost-romance, "Certified Copy." This was a surprise to absolutely no one, although I would have voted for veteran Korean actress Yun Jung-hee for her riveting performance as a dotty but resolute grandmother in Lee Chang-dong's masterful film "Poetry" (for which Lee won the best-screenplay award).

When accepting her award on stage at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, Binoche held up a card in tribute to Kiarostami's countryman Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker jailed by the Iranian regime who has been on hunger strike for nine days and is reportedly in a precarious situation. "It is intolerable that an artist can still be imprisoned for his ideas," she told us. "We are all waiting for Jafar Panahi's freedom."

Speaking of Kiarostami, who has left Iran to make films in Europe, she said, "The fact that Abbas is Iranian and can shoot women so beautifully -- that moves me tremendously, because of what happens to women in Iran."

Javier Bardem and Italian actor Elio Germano shared the best-actor prize, the former for Alejandro González Iñárritu's overwrought but compelling "Biutiful" and the latter for Daniele Luchetti's "La Nostra Vita," which I haven't seen. They shared a hug for the press corps, along with some good-natured jibes about whether Spain or Italy might win the upcoming World Cup.

Earlier, Bardem delighted tabloid editors and gossip columnists around the globe when accepting the award by pointing out Penélope Cruz in the audience and calling her "mi compañera, mi amiga, mi amor." While their relationship has been no secret, especially in Spain, this was something of a public coming-out.

This festival's second-biggest surprise award went to one of its most unexpected delights: Former Bond villain and "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" star Mathieu Amalric won the directing prize for "On Tour," a rambling yarn of unlikely Franco-American friendship that mixes Cassavetes-style indie and screwball comedy. Amalric plays a burned-out French TV producer who returns from the United States with an irresistible posse of neo-burlesque dancers who take the Gallic boondocks by storm. Much the same thing happened when Amalric and his female cast had their Cannes premiere last week -- I've never seen a red-carpet event here that looked like so much fun.

"One of the lines we cut in editing the film was, 'La tournée continue,'" Amalric told the press. "So now the tour continues and the film will be shown in cinemas. I believe people will want to see these women, their bodies, their spirits. I just stole the energy from these girls when I was making the film, so this award is for them."

The Grand Prix, effectively the second-place award at Cannes, went to French director Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men," a tale of French monks trapped in Algeria during the 1960s revolutionary struggle there. I haven't seen it, but we'll get to, since Sony Classics has acquired it for U.S. release. The Prix du Jury, or third-place award, was given to "A Screaming Man" by Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a moving and beautifully photographed tale of a father and son separated by civil war in that country. That's a nice moment for African cinema, which is in dire crisis -- as I understand it, there are no theaters in Chad likely to show Haroun's film -- but the film will likely reach the U.S. only in specialty festivals or on DVD.

One film I definitely wish I'd seen is "Leap Year" ("Año bisiesto"), a reportedly intense tale of a cross-class sadomasochistic sexual liaison by Australian director Michael Rowe, who has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. A jury headed by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal awarded Rowe's film the Caméra d'Or, as the best debut film among the 24 included in all Cannes competitions.

It's at least mildly surprising that some films embraced here by both critics and audiences, including two compelling English-language marriage dramas, Derek Cianfrance's powerful reverse romance "Blue Valentine" (with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) and Mike Leigh's "Another Year," were completely shut out on awards night. You can definitely argue that those movies don't need awards. They'll find their audience eventually, and don't be surprised to see "Blue Valentine's" stars mentioned as Oscar contenders.

There were definite signs of recovery around this town over the past two weeks: Vast crowds of tourists milling up and down the seafront Boulevard de la Croisette at virtually any hour; girls in tiny skirts vomiting in seven or eight languages. Maybe the back-street bars and restaurants of cobblestoned Le Suquet, or the media-jammed front lawn of the Grand Hotel, were even more crowded around 2006, but they've seemed pretty crazy to me this year. Even the international film business is showing signs of life, although the only American distributors active here this year have been Sony Pictures Classics, IFC and Magnolia.

Of course, the movies we saw here all launched production a year ago or longer, so it may be that we witnessed the aftereffects of a daunting recession play itself out on screen here. Whatever the reasons, head Cannes programmer Thierry Frémaux has already begun talking up the 2011 lineup, 10 months or so before it will be announced, and thereby confessing that 2010 wasn't that great.

Don't get me wrong: There were plenty of films worth seeing at Cannes this year, and a few that were wonderful. But there wasn't much of that patented Cannes fairy dust, the magic combination of starfucking glamour and artistic credibility that has created international buzz around films like "Inglourious Basterds," "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "No Country for Old Men" and "Caché."

My favorite films here were Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry," the slow-motion Russian horror film "My Joy," Amalric's "On Tour," "Blue Valentine" and Charles Ferguson's scathing financial-crisis documentary "Inside Job" (which was outside of any competition). Admittedly, the first two of those I'd have to pay my best friends to go see -- but it's not a bad haul, especially considering all the aspersions cast at Cannes this year.

Now the weather on the Côte d'Azur has turned glorious, I've finally gotten a little sleep and my rusty French has begun to become acceptable. Which also means they're kicking us out of the press room, rolling up the red carpet and shutting the place down. For me and Uncle Boonmee both, it's time to go home.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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