Cannes Plays Polanski's Tune

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Roman Polanski and his prize

Hundreds of critics gathered for the prize ceremony at the 55th Cannes Film Festival, and when the winner was revealed, their response was one of annoyance, outrage, personal hurt. After seeing so many top-grade entries from the world's top art-film directors, this year's Cannes Jury had given the Palme d'Or to Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" — a careful, conventional tale of one Jew's six awful years in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. "I'm very saddened," one veteran journalist said, as if she'd just heard that the Third Reich had marched back into Poland. What she meant was that the Jury had slighted the directors the critics love, and instead laid its blessing on Polanski, whose most artistically fertile period arguably ended a generation ago, with the 1974 "Chinatown."

The critics' chagrin mounted through the 45-min. ceremony, as their preferred films got consolation prizes. The American "Punch-Drunk Love," starring Adam Sandler and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, shared the Best Direction prize with a Korean film, Im Kwon-taek's "Chihwaseon," that one festival insider had confidently said had won the Palme d'Or. "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's rollicking guns-and-ammo documentary, was given a 55th Festival citation. The Scottish drama "Sweet Sixteen," about a teen drug-dealer who loves his mum, was generally considered one of the most compelling films of director Ken Loach's career, but it got only the Screenplay prize.

Three years ago, the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes had copped the Palme d'Or with "Rosetta"; this time, showing their minimalist suspense film "The Son" they had to be content with a Best Actor scroll for their leading man, Olivier Gourmet. A witty Palestinian film, "Divine Intervention," took the Jury Prize (third-place). And the critics' consensus favorite, Aki Kaurismaki's Finnish comedy-drama "The Man Without a Plan," received the Grand Prix (second place) and a garland for leading lady Kati Outinen as Best Actress — two awards, but not the most coveted one.

At the end, the critics — many of whom have come to this luscious Riviera town each May for ten, 20, 30 years, and think of themselves as the one true and permanent Cannes jury — noticed that some high-pedigree films had been shut out. David Cronenberg's "Spider," with Ralph Fiennes as a troubled lodger in a London halfway house, got no prize. Neither did Andrei Sukorov's "Russian Ark," an 85-min. trip through the Hermitage Museum in a single Steadicam shot. The film's unprecedented virtuosity seemed to assure it of the Superior Technique prize that had been awarded each year since 1979. But not this year. Given the winners and snubs, it's not surprising that critics were soon whispering of some secret deal between Polanski and Jury President David Lynch (never proved) and speculating heatedly on who had pressured the Jury to choose a cinematic mediocrity.

That's Cannes for you: melodrama and conspiracy theories everywhere, on the huge movie screens and outside on the bustling Croisette. The more likely, if less exciting, scenario is that a plurality of the Jurors (a distinguished panel comprising actresses Sharon Stone, Michelle Yeoh and Christine Hakim and directors Bille August, Raul Ruiz, Claude Miller, Walter Salles and Regis Warnier) quite admired Polanski's powerfully meticulous epic, and could agree on its virtues, while the other contending films had as many opponents as partisans. If "The Pianist" was not an adventurous choice, it was certainly an honorable one, in the tradition of such previous Palme d'Or winners as "The Tin Drum," "The Mission," "Pelle the Conqueror" and "Farewell My Concubine" — films that impose a personal story on a grand and wrenching national canvas.

Based on the 1946 memoir of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, and scripted by British playwright Ronald Harwood, the Polanski film teems with acute observations on the behavior of besieged people in ever more extreme circumstances. We see Szpilman (well played by the doleful Adrian Brody) and his family debating how to hide their valuables from Nazi snooping; the suspicions of their Polish neighbors ("They want to be better Nazis than Hitler"); the complicity of the "Jewish police" with their brutal masters; the degradations to which all Jews were forced in order to stay alive; the slow realization that sacrificing everything, including their precious dignity, would not save them from the Treblinka death camp. For Szpilman and the half-million other Jews sardined into the Ghetto, the issue of one's survival was as capricious as the number of shells left in a Nazi's pistol. By the end of the war only 20 Jews were still alive in Warsaw.

In the past decade or so, Holocaust films have become their own genre, one susceptible to the ferocious sentimentalizing that author Art Spiegelman has called "holo-kitsch." But Szpilman's autobiography is remarkably unsentimental; it documents the good and the bed, the heroic and the craven, in Jews and gentiles, Poles and Germans. Polanski, himself a Jew who grew up in and somehow survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, has peppered the film with his own memories, enriched it with seared insights. The film's first half — as Jews are rounded up, humiliated, beaten, summarily shot and finally sent away for extermination — is a symphony of elegantly orchestrated chaos. The second half (which details Szpilman's furtive desperation in various flats and abandoned buildings) lags a bit, but it is surely true to the isolation of a man who fights to stay alive even as he wonders why he, among all his kind, has been spared.

As he held the Palme d'Or, the 68-year-old Polanski thanked the Jury for honoring "a film representing Poland." Yet "The Pianist" is an instructively international production: filmed largely in Germany's Babelsburg Studios, with a cast of English, American, German and Polish actors, and directed by a man whose life itinerary has taken him from Paris (where he was born) to Warsaw (where he grew up, went to film school and made his first feature) to London, New York, Los Angeles and, after he fled the U.S. when charged with having sex with an underage girl, back to Paris. Most of the dialogue of "The Pianist" is in English, the lingua franca of movies — and of Cannes, where, for all the defensive pride of the French in their native tongue, more films are shown in English (or with English subtitles) than in French.

English is also the first or second language of most filmmakers. This year that led to a running gag at the award ceremony. It began when Moore tried to accommodate his hosts and stumbled through a long speech in fractured French. Next up was the Palestinian Elia Suleiman, who dead-panned, "I will not speak in French, I promise you." Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty ("Sweet Sixteen") spoke a few grateful words in French, then said, "I'm really glad my French teacher's dead, 'cause this would've finished him off. If Michael Moore didn't do it first." And Gourmet began his thanks by saying, in English, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to speak French."

None of these remarks were translated into French for the nationwide television audience; those viewers who weren't bilingual missed out on the evening's main humorous motif. Nor would they understand the acceptance speeches of filmmakers who didn't speak the festival's host language. Here, for example, are the complete remarks of Kaurismaki, who looked annoyed that his film hadn't taken the top prize: "First of all, I would thank myself. Second of all, the Jury. Thanks." He then walked over to Lynch and whispered something to him. Some thought it was a two-word sentence, the first word beginning with "f."

Some journalists even had trouble understanding comments made in their own language — as when the Finnish film's leading lady, Kati Outinen, ended her acceptance speech for Best Actress with the English phrase, "All is mercy." In auditorium where the critics were watching the show, someone muttered, "Did she say, 'Elvis Presley'?"

No: All is mercy. It's a comment the critics might keep in mind. Give thanks for a festival with many strong films; and show mercy to a Jury who had their own favorite movie.