Having gone in a brief span from the most anticipated to the most derided of events, the 50th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival tried to make amends by splitting the Palme d’Or between films by two greatly respected directors, Japan’s Shohei Imamura and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami.
The 70-year-old Imamura, too tired to attend the ceremony Sunday night, had won the Palme once before, with “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983. His current film, “The Eel,” tells its story, of a man attempting to start a new life after serving a prison term for murdering his wife, with the delicacy and skill of a master director.
The Kiarostami film, “The Taste of Cherries,” nearly didn’t make it to Cannes at all. Reports from Iran, which the director says are inaccurate, claimed it was nearly banned by the government because of Islamic fundamentalist objections to its subject matter: a man considering suicide.
An austere, rigorous but always involving film that unfolds mostly in real time, “Cherries’ ” protagonist attempts to convince three different men to help him in his suicide attempt. The audience doesn’t find out if the man lives or dies and the director, claiming he himself doesn’t know, said in an interview that the point of the film is that “Life is, life exists, life goes on. That is the most important thing.”
The Grand Prize, the festival’s runner-up award, went to Canadian director Atom Egoyan. His “The Sweet Hereafter,” an emotionally devastating version of Russell Banks’ novel about a community decimated by a school bus accident, also won the International Critics’ Prize and the Ecumenical Prize.
Working from a novel was a switch for the iconoclastic Egoyan, who admitted frankly in an interview, “I’d become impatient with my own stylistic predispositions. How do you challenge yourself? By attaching yourself to an existing property.”
The festival’s best director prize went to another critically admired director, Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai, for his “Happy Together,” a film that married virtuoso razzle-dazzle visuals to a slender story of gay lovers in Buenos Aires.
English-speaking performers took both of the festival’s acting awards. Best actress went to Kathy Burke, who played an abused wife in “Nil by Mouth,” actor Gary Oldman’s grueling, autobiographical directorial debut.
Best actor went, to many people’s surprise, to Sean Penn, who played yet another inarticulate but good-hearted hooligan in Nick Cassavetes’ “She’s So Lovely.” The film also won the Technical Prize for cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (who also shot “The Fifth Element”). That award was accepted by the director, who came onstage wearing a quintessentially juvenile porkpie hat.
The other English-language film to win an award was Ang Lee’s chilly version of the Rick Moody novel “The Ice Storm,” which went to James Schamus for best screenplay. There was also a Jury Prize given to the charming French film “Western” by Manuel Poirier, and a 50th Cannes Prize for the body of his work to 71-year-old Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Chahine told the cheering crowd, “I have some advice for youth. Be patient, it’s worth the trouble.”
If the overall level of competition films was the weakest in memory, the festival’s other sections offered more satisfactions. Interest in the Camera d’Or, given to the best first film anywhere in the festival, was intense. The winner turned out to be “Suzaku,” by Japan’s Naomi Kawase, a deliberate, almost hypnotic film, made with great beauty, about life in a remote corner of Japan.
The strongest English-language candidate was the elegantly funny “Love and Death on Long Island,” directed by Britain’s Richard Kwietniowski. Taken from a novel by Gilbert Adair, it provides the best role in memory for John Hurt, who plays a crabby British cult novelist who develops a mad crush on American mega-dreamboat Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), the star of “Hot Pants College II.”
Among the other Camera contenders was an excellent film from Norway, not previously known as a cinematic hotbed. Winning the Critics’ Week Prize (and currently playing as the highest-grossing film in its home country) was “Junk Mail,” directed by Pal Sletaune, a deft black comedy about a not-particularly-jolly postman and the woman on his route he becomes infatuated with.
What might be the best-written film in the festival was “My Son the Fanatic,” scripted by Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”), from one of his own short stories and directed by Udayan Prasad. Set in the north of England, the film features a memorable Om Puri as a cabdriver who gets attracted to a local prostitute (Rachel Griffiths) at the same time as his son comes under the sway of Islam. A poignant examination of cross-cultural divides, “Fanatic” shows how engrossing a film can be when its characters are authentic and beautifully written.
Though this was not a Cannes for the ages, it was the 50th, and representatives of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art trekked to the Riviera to announce a joint tribute to French film and Cannes. It will start on June 17 with an academy salute to the festival and continue with the showing of both current French Cannes entries and previous Cannes winners at LACMA.
If there is one element of Cannes that everyone will miss, it is the Preludes that preceded all competition screenings. These are short compilations joining excerpts from classic films on specific themes like tennis, hands, trees and stripes. One Prelude, for instance, had everyone from Carmen Miranda to Mickey Rooney and the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis singing the same Brazilian song in clips from different movies. Witty and surprising (and spearheaded by Laurent Jacob, son of festival director Giles Jacob), the Preludes had the inevitable side effect of reminding everyone of the energy and spirit this year’s films were rarely able to muster.