Bjork Is a Bjerk, and Other News From Cannes

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Catherine Deneuve was charged with drum-rolling the suspense on closing night of the 53rd Cannes Film Festival.

"And the Palme d'Or goes to..." purred the enduring French actress. And just then Luc Besson, the French director who served as the president of this year's jury, bobbed his head in front of the microphone and hummed a few bars from a plaintive song. The tune was from the winning film, whose name Besson finally pronounced: "Dancer in the Dark."

The film's director, Lars Von Trier, bounded on stage and accepted a hug from Deneuve, who had co-starred in the film. "Whooooa!" Von Trier cried in ecstatic surprise.

Others said, "Woe."

Von Trier's musical tragedy, which also won a Best Actress prize for Bjork, its leading lady and songwriter, is one of those films that can provoke fistfights or sullen silences among its champions and its detractors. In fact, it engenders a mood almost as acrimonious as that during the film's shooting, with Von Trier reportedly exasperated by his star's intractability, and Bjork at one point walking off the film for four days.

Is this 2hr.18min. musical tragedy a post-modern masterpiece or a post-musical mess? The opinion of Besson and the Cannes jury was clear enough. So was that of the unimpressed, who found the film's story dramatically and socially inane, its songs lacking in melody or variety, its jittery camerawork in need of a megadose of Ritalin.

As for the award to Bjork, it continued a trend started last year with the naming of Severine Caneele, a first-time performer who played in the French drama "L'Humanite," as co-winner of the Best Actress prize.

Warning to consummate — indeed competent — professional actresses: do not hope for recognition at Cannes. Instead, the nod will go to clueless amateurs who display their bodies or souls in so raw a manner that the jury will mistake pity for awe and give them the prize. Von Trier had earlier declared that Bjork was no actress, as if those who'd seen the film needed reminding. But Besson and the jury, which included oughta-know-better actors Jeremy Irons and Kristin Scott Thomas, didn't take the hint.

The subsidiary prizes went to more respectable, challenging films, all but two from Asia. Jiang Wen, China's leading actor and rising director, took the second-place Grand Prix for "Devils on the Doorstep," set in a Japanese-occupied village at the end of World War II. Taiwan's Edward Yang was named Best Director for his stately domestic drama, "A One and a Two." The Best Actor prize went to Tong Leung Chiu-wai, as a cuckolded husband considering an affair with lustrous Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong period romance "In the Mood for Love."

Three of the winners came from Iran's burgeoning cinema. Hassan Yektapanah's "Djomeh" and Bahman Ghobadi's "A Time from Drunken Horses" shared the Camera d'Or for best first film. And Samira Makhmalbaf received a Jury Prize for "Blackboards," a potent minimalist epic about itinerant Kurdish teachers. Makhmalbaf is a rare creature: a woman filmmaker in the fundamentalist Islamic republic and, at 20, the youngest director to win a prize at Cannes. Makhmalbaf said she accepted the award "on behalf of the young, new generation of hope in my homeland — to honor the heroic affairs of those who struggle for democracy in Iran." It was a halting, tearful and daring speech.

Makhmalbaf shared the Jury prize with Sweden's Roy Andersson, whose "Songs from the Second Floor" is a handsomely shot series of tragicomic tableaux and trompes l'oeil. The screenplay award went to Neil LaBute's "Nurse Betty," with Renee Zellweger as a young widow propelled by shock into a soap-opera world.

Another deftly entertaining American entry, the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", was ignored, as were some decent films from the festival's host country. Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka," a 3-hr, 17-min. "interior road movie" about three survivors of a terrorist attack, earned various critics' prizes for its stark beauty and psychological rigor, but the Japanese film was shut out as well in the main contest. And the strongest entry of the entire Festival, Ang Lee's thrilling action fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," was mysteriously shown out of competition, and thus ineligible for the jury's benediction.

And so closing night belonged to Bjork and Von Trier, who easily eclipsed any drama in their film by staging a wary kiss-and-make-up scene on the Grand Palais stage and at the following press conference. In accepting the Palme d'Or, Von Trier said impishly, "If you see Bjork, tell her I love her." His combative star then emerged from the wings to pose with him. Later, when asked what she thought of Von Trier's declaration of love, the "Best Actress" replied, "I'm such a private person — can I sing it?" But Bjork was giving no free concerts at a press conference. "Give me 10 years — I promise I will answer you in a lot of songs. But you have to let them come out when they want to."

Finally, Von Trier got to clarify his earlier remarks about Bjork. "It's kind of American to say 'I love you,'" he admitted. "But I like her much more than she thinks. And I hope that she likes me more than I think."

C'est l'amour, c'est la vie, c'est la guerre, c'est la cinema de Cannes.