Cannes Diary XI: A Child Shall Lead Them

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At the Palmares, the award ceremony on closing night at Cannes each year, it is the duty of the President of the Jury —usually a distinguished filmmaker —to announce the seven or eight prizes, leading to the highest honor, the Palme d'Or. Usually, they pour their personalities into the job. In 1985, Czech-born director Milos Forman seemed radiant naming a fellow Eastern European, the Serbian Emir Kusturica, as the winner for When Father Was Away on Business. Clint Eastwood brought a steely twinkle to his performance as President, and last year Quentin Tarantino was ecstatic to announce that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 had captured the Palme.

Tonight, though, Kusturica, the two-time winner who was this year's foreman, looked impatient, hardly waiting for his cues from mistress of ceremonies Cecile de France before he unsmilingly intoned the names of the winners. Best Director? "Michael Haneke for Hidden." The runner-up Grand Prix du Jury? "Jim Jarmusch, Broken Flowers." And the Palme d'Or goes to? A short, gruff answer: "L'enfant." A caller of Bingo numbers at a church social would have given the readings more pizzazz.

With L'enfant, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne join Kusturica and Bille August as two-time Palme winners. Their film traces the dissolution of a relationship between a street thief (Jeremie Renier) and his old girlfriend (Deborah Francois), who has recently borne him a child. The Dardennes were pleased, as was some of the audience, but there was no on-stage sizzle. Indeed, the entire 45-min. show proceeded in perfunctory fashion. Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Actor prize for his role as a South Texas cowboy on a mission of justice and revenge for a dead friend In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The languid Chinese drama Shanghai Dreams, by once-outlawed director Wang Xiaoshuai, took the Jury Prize (third place.) They murmured their thanks, but the mood was tepid.

A few speeches included gingerly political references. Guillermo Arriaga, the Mexican scenarist whose work on The Three Burials won him the Best Screenplay prize, said he wanted to share it with "all those Mexicans who cross the border trying to find a decent way of living." Hanna Laslo, as a smart, assertive Israeli driving Natalie Portman into Jordan in Amos Gitai's Free Zone, was named Best Actress. She expressed the hope for conversations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Jarmusch was more personal. He thanked "this very strange Jury," and graciously declared his solidarity with all the directors in the competition (naming about half of them), saying, "We are really all one tribe, and I am honored to be one of you."

Thus the prize list was intriguing but not very interesting. It certainly had its surprises —at least to Team Corliss. In our daily diary entries we wrote nearly 12,000 words on the festival films and never once mentioned L'enfant. Why? Because, to us, it was neither a significant achievement (like the Haneke) nor an instructive failure (like Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking). The Dardennes had blazed a path of micro-realism with La promesse, Rosetta and The Son, all potent, estimable works. Their new film seemed to repeat the old strategies without enriching them, to be just another trip down the same muddy canal.

On the first day of the festival, as critic John Powers recalled tonight, the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman had predicted that Kusturica would reward mediocre films, on the dark theory that the two-time Palme d'Or winner couldn't stand implied competition with his betters. Jim may have been kidding, but to those of us who were left unmoved and unawed by L'Enfant, his notion suddenly seemed plausible. Why had Haneke been named Best Director, which despite its lofty name is really a door prize? And why had David Cronenberg, whose A History of Violence was widely seen as matching Hidden as the competition's best work, totally shut out?

Obviously, because the Jury as a whole didn't love his film as much as Benoit Jacquot, one of its members, told us yesterday that he did. A more labyrinthine argument is that a secondary prize is an insult to an internationally esteemed filmmaker. For Cronenberg, as for Lars Von Trier in 2003 with Dogville and Wong Kar-wai last year with 2046, the proper recognition would be all or nothing. They got nothing.

So, enfin, L'enfant. Finally, after the 11-day gestation of the festival, a child is born. And it's a winner. So be it. We don't much like the looks of the infant, and we much prefer his siblings; but we congratulate the parents, the brothers Dardenne, on its successful delivery and wish them joy in their triumph.