Faced with having to choose between two exceptional films, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival did what juries rarely do: It acted sensibly and split the Palme D'Or between Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell to My Concubine."
Chen's nearly three-hour epic investigation of half a century of Chinese history, which also won the International Critics Prize, was the first film from China to take Cannes' top prize. "This is a very important in my life," the director said in English from the stage of the Palais du Festival. "After having three films of mine in competition, only I know how far it is to get up here."
"The Piano's" award marked another first for the festival, the first time the Palme D'Or went to a film directed by a woman. Director Campion, nearly eight months pregnant, had returned to Australia, so the prize for her film, the story of a mute woman who comes to mid-19th-Century New Zealand with a prized piano and becomes involved with two men, was accepted by Sam Neill, one of its stars.
"It's a long way from New Zealand to this stage, and this is a kind of miracle," Neill said with obvious emotion, adding, "a miracle wrought by Jane Campion." "The Piano" also won the award that was most popular with the Palais' black-tie audience, a best actress prize for its star, Holly Hunter, who also thanked Campion, "for entrusting me with Ada, and guiding us all in a very, very kind way." She then thanked the audience "for loving the movie and responding to it," and the crowd responded right back with a long burst of loud, rhythmic applause.
Both "Concubine" and "Piano" were purchased by Miramax Films before the festival began and will open in the United States later this year.
The only film to win two awards outright was also a popular choice: Mike Leigh's searing "Naked." First to win was David Thewlis as best actor for his portrayal of the tormented, misogynistic Johnny, a homeless wanderer who spends a particularly hellish night in contemporary London. With a smile toward jury president Louis Malle, who had cast him in a small part in "Damage," Thewlis especially thanked his wife "who had the patience and bravery to live with the character of Johnny for seven months."
When Leigh won the prize for best director, the applause got louder, and the director, who started out by apologizing in French for "speaking French like a tourist," ended up saying simply, in English, "I am completely overwhelmed. Thank you very much indeed, more than words can say."
Adding to the honors won by English and Chinese language films, the festival jury also split its important Jury Prize. One-half went to the man Leigh calls "the big daddy of contemporary British film directors," Ken Loach. "Raining Stones" is Loach's latest film (and one of his best) and is, as usual, a tragicomic look at life among Britain's struggling working class.
The other half of the jury prize went to Taiwan director Hou Hsiao Hsien for his rigorous "The Puppetmaster." Coming on stage with Hou was the film's 84-year-old protagonist, real-life puppet master Li Tien-lu, who charmed the crowd by croaking out a vigorous "merci."
Although its reception from American critics was decidedly mixed, rumor had been strong all week that Wim Wenders' "Faraway, So Close!," an uneventful sequel to his "Wings of Desire," would get some notice, and, for once, the rumors were right. Wenders, who has previously won a Palme D'Or for "Paris, Texas" and a best director nod for "Wings," was given the Grand Jury Prize.
Winning the Camera D'Or, given for the best first directing effort, was yet another film from Asia, Vietnam's cooly elegant "The Scent of the Green Papaya." Directed by Tran Anh Hung, this exquisite film about the poetry of the everyday and the complexities of love was shot totally on a soundstage but doesn't look it at all. Given special mention by the Camera D'Or jury was "Friends," Elaine Proctor's uneven but involving study of the nearly psychotic state of things in South Africa.
America's entrants in Cannes were not expected to do well and they didn't. The only domestic film to win anything was Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," which won the Palme D'Or for short films. The other award handed out last night, given by a special jury, was the Grand Technical Prize, which went to France's very odd "Mazeppa." Its director, the one-named Bartabas, leaped on stage later during the proceedings to complain about everyone being in tuxedos. Maybe you had to be there.