'Room' at the Top

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The announcement held even less suspense than last week's Italian election results. On Sunday night, when Jury President Liv Ullmann said that the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the 54th Cannes Film Festival, would go to Nanni Moretti's Italian drama "La Stanza del Figlio" ("The Son's Room"), she confirmed the consensus of critics and industry types: that this study of an ideal family in bereavement was the fortnight's film to beat.

The ceremony lacked the exultation and outrage that greeted the proclamation last year of Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" as the Palme d'Or winner and Bjork, its star, as best actress. But that's just the way of movies: some films, or groups of films, stir controversy; others don't. This was pretty much a "don't" year, despite the presence of good films by such longtime masters as Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, and from younger Americans David Lynch and Joel Coen.

For a mild festival, then, a mild conclusion. Throughout the 12 days of Cannes 2001, journalists had been noting that the selection did not contain many enthralling films. The Jury simply seconded that notion by handing out laurels to the fewest number of films in at least 30 years. Strip away the minor prizes, and the 10-member Jury — which included directors Edward Yang and Terry Gilliam and actors Mathieu Kassovitz and Sandrine Klibermann — was basically saying it could agree on the merits of only two movies, the Moretti and Michael Haneke's Franco-Austrian drama "La Pianiste" ("The Piano Teacher"), which won the Grand Prix, or second place, and both acting awards (for perennial stunner Isabelle Huppert and her young co-star Benoit Magimel).

The screenplay prize went to Bosnian first-timer Danis Tanovic for "No Man's Land," a smart take on the fatal, fratricidal absurdity of war. The citation for director was shared by two U.S. thrillers with stylish film-noir overtones: Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." and Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There." France is the land that invented the idea of the film director as auteur, but the "Prix de la mise en scene" is more of a party favor; it rewards the third or fourth finisher in the Jury's affections. Only in Cannes can a best-director scroll seem like a consolation prize. But the two films were in fact the best directed of the competition, and the most deviously plotted. Both served up a lovely, lurid brew of greed, murder and deviously twisted or mistaken identities. They had scripts that compared nicely with the best of the dear old hard-boiled novels that inspired them.

The American writer John Irving has said that the novelist's job is to create the most wonderful people and then imagine the worst things that could happen to them. Moretti did the same in 1995, when his wife was pregnant: he drafted a script about the reactions of a family when a child dies. Not wanting to spook his wife, he put the idea aside. But mortality has been on Moretti's mind for a while. In the early '90s he was diagnosed with cancer, and in his film "Dear Diary," which played at Cannes in 1994, he turned the incident into affecting, elevated comedy-drama.

The actor-writer-director first achieved fame as a deadpan comic. His later films have turned more serious and introspective. "The Son's Room" begins by painting an idyllic portrait of a modern family: the psychiatrist father Giovanni (Moretti), his handsome, caring wife Paola (Laura Morante) and a pair of radiant teenage children, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (newcomer Jasmine Trinca, to whose unaffected beauty this writer hereby and forever pledges his moviegoing heart). When Andrea dies in a SCUBA-diving accident, this loving nuclear family is in danger of emotional annihilation.

"The Son's Room" has no bold aesthetic or narrative innovations. It is an old-fashioned, admirably reticent film that succeeds not through daring but by avoiding the seductions of sentimentality and melodrama. Moretti knows that the situation is strong enough to touch the audience without additional directorial prodding, so he makes the film an accumulation of poignant vignettes.

Here are three. Irene, in the midst of a basketball game, spots her father at courtside and smiles reflexively; when she sees the sorrow on his face (he has just learned of the accident), she freezes, as if she somehow knows that her carefree youth has just ended abruptly, and an opponent strips her of the ball. Giovanni visits an amusement park: a ride jostles him violently, but his face remains immobile, stricken, dead. Back in the family apartment, Giovanni plays a CD that contains one of Andrea's favorite tunes; he keeps replaying one seven-second sample that reminds him of a precious moment with son. It underlines the joy he took for granted, the pain he will always bear.

Some families have pain thrust upon them; others are born into it. That is the lot of Erika (Huppert), a piano teacher in her late 30s, and her aged mother (Annie Girardot). They have been torturing each other for decades, giving vent to shouts and exasperations, though at night they sleep in adjoining double beds. On her own, Erika plays out her passion and contempt by visited porno shops and, in the bathroom at home, mutilating her genitals with a razor blade.

Bred to sternness and precision, Erika is a demanding instructor of her gifted charges, who are preparing their Schubert and Schumann pieces for national competitions. "Your meager talent isn't worth it," she tells one student. "Take a job playing piano in a strip joint and stop wasting my time." But a young man named Walter (Magimel) has an audacity to match his talent. Erika finds him an insufficiently serious prodigy, or perhaps a bold kindred spirit, so she rejects him before deciding to take him on, as student and lover. Clearly, theirs is the mutual attraction of a veteran control freak and an ambitious challenger. "I want all you want," she tells him. "I have all you need."

Toward the end, as Erika spells out her sadomasochistic intentions to her new beau, "The Piano Teacher" goes a bit goofy; it loses its control even as Erika is surrendering hers. But if it tries the moviegoer's patience, the film never cedes its fascination. That is a tribute to Haneke, to the power of the source novel by Elfriede Jelinek and especially to the watchful, risky intelligence of its star. Accepting her Best Actress prize, Huppert, who made her first big impression at Cannes 24 years ago with "The Lacemaker," offered thanks to her director — and to "Bach, Schubert, Mozart." Those Old Masters helped Huppert make beautiful, dissonant music from the shards of Erika's broken but urgent soul. The French audience gave her a hugely merited ovation.

Go figure the French: they can produce beautiful vegetables, wines and people but not a competent awards show. Each year, Cannes' Ceremonie du Cloture, though it lasts barely an half hour, contains enough goofs and gaffes to stock a decade's worth of Oscar Nights. When Ullmann declared that the Technical Prize would go to sound engineer Tu Duu-chih (who worked on two Taiwanese films in the competition, as well as on earlier works by one of the jurors, director Edward Yang), the lovely Taiwanese actress Hsu Chi came on stage to accept the award. She had a speech prepared to explain why Tu deserved the accolade, and a translator for the French audience. Yet Hsu Chi got only a "thank you" out before she was whisked away to pose for photographers.

Standing nearby, French actress Arielle Dombasle, who presented the award, gazed at Hsu Chi and murmured, "What a beautiful technician!" Dombasle, and perhaps the assembled crowd, thought that the Asian glamour goddess was a sound man! On stage as well as on screen, Cannes is a place of tangled identities.