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‘Elephant’ wins the Palme d’Or

Times Staff Writer

“Must See TV” took on international significance Sunday night as Gus Van Sant’s made-for-HBO “Elephant” won two major prizes at the Festival de Cannes, including the Palme d’Or.

“I thought I was finished,” a flabbergasted Van Sant said as he returned to the podium just minutes after collecting the best director award. “It’s amazing. For many years, I tried just to get films into Cannes.” Too stunned to notice he was mixing languages, Van Sant ended with a heartfelt “Viva la France.”

Suggested by the shootings at Columbine and named after an admired Alan Clark work about violence in Northern Ireland, the semi-improvised “Elephant” (handsomely shot by Harris Savides) takes a cool approach, both anesthetized and aestheticized, to high school violence.

“It’s an attempt to get you involved in the characters by watching, not through constructed dialogue or plot,” said Van Sant at a press conference for the film, which features genuine Portland, Ore., high school students. “I wanted more of a poetic impression, to allow the audience’s thoughts in.”

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Cannes gives out a minimum of seven awards to its 20 competition films, and it says something about what one trade paper described as “competition choices considered the worst in living memory” that only four films got all the top awards, with three films, including “Elephant,” getting two apiece.

It also says something, although it is not clear what, that both Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” easily the favorite of European critics, and Clint Eastwood’s much admired “Mystic River” both went home winless.

The shutout of “Mystic River” brought to mind the similar fate of Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” a few years back. With Cannes juries seemingly bending over backward to resist character-driven non-"Matrix” Hollywood fare, it’s unclear what incentive studios will have to risk these kinds of films in a competitive environment in the future.

Taking the Grand Prix, traditionally considered the runner-up prize, was the Turkish film “Uzak” (Distant), a beautifully made, unapologetically artistic meditation on loneliness and lack of connection that focuses on what happens when an unsophisticated country cousin moves in with an Istanbul photographer.

“Uzak’s” director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is said to have made the film on a budget of $100,000 and to have served also as producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and co-editor. He dedicated his prize to fellow Turkish director Serif Goren, whose anti-government “Yol” won the Palme in 1982. “He died in Paris,” Ceylan said, “in suffering, never to see his country again.”

An equally tragic story attended the awarding of the best actor prize to “Uzak’s” stars, Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak. Toprak, a young actor who played the country cousin, recently died in an auto accident, reportedly driving home to show his mother an earlier festival award.

Also winning two prizes was Denys Arcand’s warm and bracing French Canadian “Les Invasions Barbares” (The Barbarian Invasions), the sequel to his 1986 “The Decline of the American Empire,” still Canada’s most successful film worldwide.

A picture that is both generous-spirited and biting as it picks up its characters’ lives a generation later and examines attitudes toward death and dying, “Barbares” took the screenplay award for Arcand and the best actress prize for Marie-Josee Croze, who plays a young junkie.

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Winning the jury prize was the Iranian “Five in the Afternoon,” a visually strong, often didactic look at the problems women have in post-Taliban Afghanistan that was directed by 23-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf. “My movie is about a woman who wants to be president,” she said in accepting, before adding, apropos of very little, “but I don’t want to be president when the most famous president in the world is George W. Bush.”

Also making an off-the-wall comment was Danish director Christoffer Boe, whose Critic’s Week feature, “Reconstruction,” captured the Camera d’Or for best first film. Addressing actor-director Vincent Gallo -- whose “The Brown Bunny,” about an endless car ride across America in search of true love, was so widely derided that he apologized for making it -- Boe implored: “Vincent Gallo, please don’t give up. We’re in the army and we should all fight conventional filmmaking.” A Cannes moment for sure.

As usual for Cannes, some of the most interesting, most satisfying films were to be found outside the main competition. One of the least likely successes was a six-hour movie made for television that brought audiences to tears and won two significant awards, the Prix un Certain Regard for being the best film in that section, and a prize for being the best of 42 pictures from 13 countries in all sections made in one of the Latin languages, in this case Italian.

With its roughly $6-million budget, more than 240 settings and expansive 24-week shooting schedule, Marco Tullio Giordana’s “La Meglio Gioventu” (The Best of Youth) is far from a typical European TV production, and that difference extends to its ambition and its success.

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“La Meglio Gioventu” takes place over four decades of Italian history, from the 1960s to the present, involving its extended family in situations such as Sicily’s fight against the Mafia, the great Florence flood and the terrorist Red Brigades. Filled with exceptionally involving characters, adroitly mixing the personal and the societal, this warmly intelligent epic has the ability to surprise us -- as life does -- with what the passage of time does to people we care about. Finally, this feels like the story of all our lives, not just the ones on screen.

Also notable for its ability to draw universal morals from very specific national tales is a completely charming film from Norway, “Kitchen Stories,” so well-written and directed by Bent Hamer that an Oslo critic insisted that “rarely in Norwegian film history have we seen a more impressive achievement.”

“Kitchen Stories” is grounded in the reality of the 1950s Swedish mania to “rationalize the kitchen,” to so organize the placement of appliances that “Swedish housewives no longer need to walk to the Sahara to cook a year’s worth of dinners; now Northern Italy will suffice.”

Flush with this success, a crack team of kitchen scientists takes off in a line of egg-shaped lime-green campers to study and improve the cooking habits of cranky Norwegian bachelors. That proves a considerable challenge, and this irresistibly droll and inescapably deadpan comedy of manners (and lack of them) takes understandable delight in showing us exactly why.

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More and more, Cannes is becoming a home to serious and involving documentaries like Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” and Cambodian Rithy Panh’s agonizing “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” This year, as a kind of special treat, there were no less than three excellent documentaries that dealt incisively with notable figures in film history.

Richard Schickel’s comprehensive and insightful “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin,” examines the best-known of them, a founding father of film art whose life was caught between the hunger to make people laugh and the fear that he would lose the ability.

Less well-known but equally worthy is 88-year-old virtuoso cameraman Jack Cardiff, whose 80-plus-year film career (he began as a child actor) is celebrated in Craig McCall’s engaging “Persistence of Vision: The Life and Work of Cinematographer Jack Cardiff.” A master of color photography (he shot the Michael Powell masterworks “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes”), Cardiff proves to be a master storyteller as well.

Also capturing the warmth of remembered history is N.T. Binh’s “Claude Sautet or the Invisible Magic.” The director of such films as “Cesar and Rosalie,” “A Heart in Winter” and “Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud,” Sautet was a great French humanistic director whose work is not as well-known in the U.S. as it deserves to be. Watching this gives us a chance to re-experience Sautet’s films and wonder anew at the director’s gift for illuminating the heartfelt complexities of human behavior. It reminds us why we go to films, and to Cannes.

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