The 58th Festival de Cannes struck a mighty blow for socially conscious yet highly dramatic cinema Saturday when it awarded the Palme d'Or to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's quietly devastating "The Child." It was the second Palme for the Belgian filmmaking brothers, who won the top prize here in 1999 for "Rosetta."
"The Child" features Jeremie Renier as an amoral young grifter who gets into a horrible mess when he becomes a father. Like all the Dardennes' films, including 1996's "La Promesse," which also starred Renier, it's a slice of underclass reality that relentlessly shows how difficult it can be to have ordinary human feelings while living in impoverished circumstances.
This year's festival was especially good for American filmmakers. Actor-director Tommy Lee Jones' first theatrical feature, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," took two prizes during the ceremony at the Grand Palais. These included best actor for Jones and best screenplay for Mexico's Guillermo Arriaga, who said, as he accepted the award, that he was wearing "the first tuxedo I have on in my life."
The director plays a ranch foreman in West Texas who goes to extraordinary lengths to see that his slain best friend, an illegal immigrant, gets a proper burial in Mexico. Jones, whose film screened publicly Friday, gave a special thanks to "the warm-hearted people of France who came to the film," saying they made "me feel as good as I've ever felt in my life."
Taking the Grand Jury Prize, considered the festival's runner-up award, was Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," which stars a nearly catatonic Bill Murray as an aging Lothario who hears he might have a child and goes on a zombie-like search to find out who the mother might be.
Though her film was not in competition, Cannes was also good to American independent director Miranda July. Her quirky Sundance Film Festival favorite, "Me and You and Everyone We Know," shared the Camera d'Or for best first film along with the Sri Lankan "The Forsaken Land," directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara, and also took the Grand Prize for the Critics' Week section. The Cinefondation prize for a film school film went to another American, NYU's Antonio Campos, for "Buy It Now."
As usual, films that found favor with critics did not necessarily do well with the main Cannes jury, which included directors Emir Kusturica and Agnes Varda, writer Toni Morrison and actress Salma Hayek, a panel that Jarmusch aptly characterized in his acceptance speech as "very strange."
David Cronenberg's exceptional "A History of Violence" was completely shut out, and writer-director Michael Haneke, an Austrian who makes films in French, had to be satisfied with best director for his well-received "Hidden."
"Hidden," which also won the FIPRESCI international critics award and the Ecumenical Jury award, details a modern nightmare: A French talk show host (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (Juliette Binoche) receive a series of anonymous videos showing that someone has been secretly recording their world. The most accessible film yet from a director with a normally icy worldview, "Hidden" deals convincingly with questions of revenge, recrimination, and personal and societal responsibility.
In other prize news, Israeli Hanna Laslo's strong performance in Amos Gitai's didactic "Free Zone" took the best actress award, and Wang Xiaoshuai's "Shanghai Dreams," a genteel look at an explosive period in Chinese history, won the Jury Prize. The Un Certain Regard section was won by Romania's Cristi Puiu for "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu", and the very unofficial Palm Dog for the best canine performance was given to an Asiatic mutt glimpsed in a new feature from Mongolia shown in the Cannes film market.
Not all the movies screened at Cannes are eligible for awards. One of the most intriguing of these was "Factotum," starring Matt Dillon and set in Los Angeles and directed by Norway's Bent Hamer. It gracefully combines the droll sensibility of "Kitchen Stories," Hamer's last film, with the bleak world of poet Charles Bukowski, on whose writings the film is based. The title of one of Bukowski's stories sort of says it all about the character: "My Beer-Sodden Soul Is Sadder Than All the Dead Christmas Trees in the World."
The most talked-about non-competition film, for Americans at least, was Woody Allen's London-based "Match Point," a departure not only in setting but in subject matter. A thriller in the Patricia Highsmith mold starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a ruthless social climber and Scarlett Johansson as a young American he becomes involved with, "Match Point" displayed more energy than any Allen film in years. Whether this was enough to make the film a success remains an open question.
The most consistently interesting films at Cannes, as at many festivals these days, were the documentaries, which covered an especially wide range of subject matter. Frederick Baker's "Shadowing The Third Man" is an adventurous examination of that great film, complete with vintage footage of the original Carol Reed feature projected on buildings in today's Vienna, while "Pele Forever" is an authorized, eye-popping reminder of the unmatched skills of the greatest soccer player of all time. Even seeing more than 300 of the man's goals on screen leaves you eager for more.
An unexpectedly satisfying documentary that Cannes served up was "Screaming Masterpiece," subtitled "1000 Years of Icelandic Popular Music." A survey of that country's vibrant, creative rock scene, including interviews and performance footage from the likes of Bjork and Sigur Ros, "Screaming" offers great music as well as a lively and informative tour of the country that produced it.
The happiest and saddest on-screen moments in all of Cannes came at 8:30 every morning. They were a result of the festival's decision to precede this year's morning competition films with a series of five-minute clips from the works of master French director Jean Renoir.
It was both delightful to start the day with classic moments from treasures like "French Cancan" and "A Day In the Country" and depressing to realize that Renoir's spirit of buoyant humanism finds precious few echoes in the elite world of international cinema that this festival makes its business to explore.