The U.S. Mostly Snubbed at Cannes

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VALERY HACHE / AFP / Getty Images

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu poses next to US actress Jane Fonda after winning the Palme d'Or prize for his film '4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile' (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) during the Closing ceremony of the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival at the Festival Palace in Cannes, southern France.

It was a United Nations kind of evening at the Palmares, the closing ceremony for the 60th Cannes Film Festival. Surveying a rich and rewarding slate of 21 films in the official competition, the jury, headed by Brit director Stephen Frears, gave out nine prizes to movies from eight different countries: Romania, Japan, the U.S., Germany, France, Russia, South Korea and Mexico. Only France had two winning films, and the directors of those were from Tehran and New York City.

The top-prize Palme d'Or, presented by visiting Hollywood royalty Jane Fonda, went to 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu's exemplary Romanian drama about a young woman seeking an illegal abortion for her college roommate in the waning says of the Ceausescu regime. That was an excellent choice, and more or less expected for the strong, grim film that had earned a consensus of critical esteem, and has been picked up for distribution around the world (including the U.S.). It was also a tribute to a country whose cinema industry is on the rise; another Romanian effort, Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin', yesterday won the main prize for the Un Certain Regard sidebar selection.

The acting awards went to two performances of grieving spouses. Konstantin Lavronenko was cited for The Banishment, the Russian film about a crumbling marriage, in a slim fortnight for male actors — though Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem would have been more than worthy for their roles in Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. This was a year for les femmes, with many films about woman isolated in their passion or misery. One of those performances, Jeon Do-yeon's in the Korean Secret Sunshine, was the favorite to take Best Actress, and it did.

"There's always a surprise film that wins a prize," French critic Michel Ciment said last night, "and a film that surprises by not winning." The unexpected winner, of the Grand Prix du Jury (second place), was Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest, yet another parable of grieving and reconciliation. An old widower, institutionalized with dementia, is cared for by a woman who herself has lost her young son. (There were important deaths in every one of the winning films.) Determined to set the spirit of his dead wife free, the man sets out on a long quest through a forest, accompanied by the younger woman. It's a serious film that could touch anyone haunted by the loss of a loved one. But the movie hadn't the ultimate dramatic impact to earn one of Cannes' most esteemed prizes.

Of the six films tagged as front-runners — 4 Months, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Carlos Reygadas' Stellet Licht, Fatih Akim's German-Turkish family drama The Edge of Heaven and the Coens' adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel — all but one was lauded tonight. The one you might be looking forward to: the Coen movie.

Of the rest, Schnabel's energetic true-life story of a man who learns to communicate after being immobilized by a stroke won the director prize. Satrapi's beguiling autobiographical animation shared the Jury Prize (third place) with Reygadas' very demanding, even more rewarding story of a Mennonite family in Northern Mexico. The screenplay citation went to the Akim film, the story of three parent-child relationships that get sundered; and if the script has more coincidences and withheld identities than a whole season of an American soap opera, it certainly held the interest and provided a showcase for some handsome performances and a budding directorial talent.

"The best director," Frears proclaimed, "is Julian Schnabel." But the New York painter-auteur was not the best winner. How did he embarrass himself and the Americans watching? Let us count the ways: 1) lumbered across the wide stage to shake the hands of all 10 Jury members; 2) mispronounced the name of his lead actor (Mathieu Amalric) and the biggest international star in the cast (Max Von Sydow); 3) invoked the pseudo-French song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" (from the Hollywood musical Gigi) to acknowledge the film's five lovely supporting actresses, none of them little girls; 4) insulted his host country, then tried to turn it into a compliment ("Many times they say, 'The Problem with France is the French,' but that's a lie"); and 5) squeezed some sour grapes by saying, "If I did get the Palme d'Or I was gonna give it to Bernardo Bertolucci, who's been ill. But I didn't, so it doesn't matter." One or two jury members wince at the oafish display, as if to ask, Is it too late to retract the prize?

Gus Van Sant, who's made good films (Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For) and bad ones (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Finding Forrester), got a prize for another miss: Paranoid Park, the muddled, nearly incoherent tale of a teen skateboarder haunted by a thoughtless killing. He received the 60th Anniversary Prize, Frears announced, "for his career, and because he made a lovely film."

Besides Van Sant's, there were four other U.S. films in the Competition — Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, David Fincher's Zodiac and James Gray's We Own the Night — and none of them received a prize. Readers in the States may be wondering if all four films were less laudable than the nine that won something.

The answer is that the Coens' crime caper is sharp and smart and was certainly worthy of a top slot. Gray's cop drama rarely reached the emotional boiling point, but the Tarantino and Fincher films, if not nearly the best of the directors' work, paraded the filmmaking brio, the narrative twists and drive, that mark solid updates of the classic Hollywood style. That the jurors ignored every member of this quartet, while laying hands on Van Sant's very minor indie effort, could possibly suggest an anti-Hollywood agenda. Major U.S. studios may take the hint, and be more reluctant to submit films for the competition in future years.

One personal note, as we conclude our 34th Cannes festival, and our seventh reporting for Those smiling people on the Palais stage tonight weren't the only winners at Cannes' 60th birthday bash. On Thursday, Festival President Gilles Jacob presented medals to 30 international film critics, all veterans of Cannes coverage, and two of the awards went to Mary and Richard Corliss, and we were honored to receive them. We hope to be worthy of them, and you our readers, if we're here for Cannes' 61st festival. With pleasure and hope, we say, "A l'annee prochaine!"