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Cannes '10 Day 12: Prizes!

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 23, 2010 06:23 PM

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Thumbnail image for Apichatpong Weerasethakul.jpgIf there was consensus among the cinérati that the year was less than great, there was also agreement that the winners were more deserving than anticipated. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" won the Palme d'Or, as was generally hoped and, in some corners, predicted. The movie is not a work of polemics, unless you hold strong political objections to non-narrative, wholly unclassifiable ghost stories set in the thick of the Thai jungle. But there was a sense (for some) that given the unrest in Thailand, where Apichatpong's humid astonishments are as much an acquired moviegoing taste as they are in other parts of the world, the jury would try to deliver the country some good news. Not that the film needs current events to bring it accolades. It's perfectly marvelous on its own. 

There was the additional belief that the Palme would go to "Of Gods and Men," Xavier Beauvois's drama about a handful of oldish and ancient French monks who debate whether to pack up and leave during a stretch of the Algerian War. The movie, in its latter scenes, reduced a packed international house of sophisticates to a theater full of people who didn't know they needed to bring Kleenex. But the movie earns your tears with a blend of reason, philosophy, and strategically deployed "Swan Lake." It won the Grand Prize, which is like being chosen vice-movie. 

The Jury Prize went to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "The Screaming Man," from Chad, a beautifully written, acted, and directed film that hinges on the dramatic ironies between a pool attendant and his son, amid civil war. It was one of the festival's best films, even though a lot of people didn't seem to think so until you reminded them they saw it. That pretty much sums up the Jury Prize: Oh yeah...

In the lobby of the Salle Lumière, where the awards ceremony is held, the minutes leading up to the start of the program felt dramatic in a routine way: gowns, tuxedos, stars, men with cords coiling from their ears who all look like Jason Statham. Can you feel the suspense? One of the complaints this year was that there wasn't enough glamour to spice up the red carpet. Film critics are supposed to be immune to that sort of crisis. But a movie critic on or near the red carpet can grasp the problem firsthand.

Javier Bardem and Elio Germano.jpgI had just arrived outside the Lumière minutes after the stars had begun the walk inside, when I heard this in French: "Ladies and gentleman, the president of the short-film jury, Atom Egoyan!" We officially were parched for glitz, and it only staggered into sight. On television, the procession always suffers from seriousness. No matter how deep the decolletage or how blinding the flashes courtesy of cameraman hanging from ladders, people often seemed to be heading into a funeral. This year the procession lacked the excitement of, say, Thursday night, when during the red-carpet activity before the premiere of the US main-competition thriller "Fair Game," a DJ thoughtfully segued from Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" to "Empire State of Mind," by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. 

That night you could feel a jolt of electricity surge through the crowd as it waited for the arrival of the movie's star, Naomi Watts. As the Sinatra was winding down, the simple thump of the newer song's drum loop slid under him like a magic carpet. People in pockets along the Croisette moved and threw their hands up in anticipation. This is a song whose chorus is like Christmas Day. When Alicia Keys Flight 125 to Harlem takes off, you're up there soaring with her. 

Juliette Binoche (Giullaume Canet).jpg

Tonight, instead, it was the damp tidings of Coldplay and such. Under the circumstances, I think even Gwyneth Paltrow, were she here, might have preferred Jay-Z over the music of her husband. It's not sexy. Still, people had to make their way into the theater regardless of what the DJ did. Kirsten Dunst, who directed a film that premiered here this weekend, wore a smart, electric-blue frock whose collar faced backward and whose buttons ran along her spine. With her brunette bob and Moon Bounce lips, Emmanuelle Béart wore what appeared to be a silken pants suit. She looked like she was going to a business meeting in a yogurt commercial. The cast of "Biutiful" entered the lobby, and it's a testament to how imposing the movie's leading man, Javier Bardem, is that I honestly don't recall seeing his tinier, talented amore, Penélope Cruz. Although, I'm certain she was there. 

"Biutiful" seemed to have a shot at the top prize heading into the evening. Its claims for greatness or badness formed the centerpiece of most of the week's debates. One imagines that since it didn't win Alejandro González Iñárritu the Palme d'Or or any of the consolation prizes, it had a similar impact on the jury. Bardem did the win best actor award. He plays a Barcelona man with a laundry list of woe, and he's the best thing about the movie. That's saying something given all the straining for art Iñárritu does. Bardem had to share the prize with Elio Germano, who was also the best thing about the movie he was in, Daniele Luchetti's "Our Life."

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.jpg

A crisp professionalism characterizes the awards ceremony. As the actors and filmmakers take their seats, decked-out civilians, festival staff, technicians, photographers, and industry people sit (or stand), waiting for the show to begin. (The press usually watches from a different theater inside the Palais.) It's the cast members of other moves who seem starstruck by the names passing them in the aisle or sitting in their row. Juliette Binoche wore a strapless, hard-bodiced, cream-colored gown with copper belting. She was Homeric meringue. It was fun watching the wonderfully overdone strippers who star in Mathieu Amalric's "Tournée" ogle Binoche as she passed them, a lady within spitting distance of these vivacious broads in sea-foam and lace. They represented two different approaches to glamour. 

The house sat silent for almost a full minute as a cameraman tracked the director Julie Bertuccelli walking to her seat, along with her cast, which included two little blonde girls and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Betruccelli's moist drama "The Tree" is the festival's closing film, and in the last three days it seemed to be showing more than "Law & Order." Gainsbourg was preferable in last year's "Antichrist," which both afforded her a more profane encounter with a tree and won her the actress prize.

Cannes 2010 jury.jpg

This is an awards show for people who liked the big news delivered with zero pomp. No production numbers, no banter, no clips. Speeches that seem to count for something. When Apichatpong appeared to be finishing up his thank-yous, the recorded music started. When he continued to talk, it stopped. Kristin Scott Thomas hosted in a chartreuse gown, bringing on the presenters, and helping the jury president, Tim Burton, introduce the jurors one by one -- Benicio del Toro, Shekhar Kapur, Alexandre Desplat, Victor Erice, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Emmanuel Carrère, Alberto Barbera, and Kate Beckinsale. They walked between a set of sliding panels, down a flight of stairs, and sat in white chairs on raised platform off to the right of the stage. (It, too, was very "Law & Order.") A presenter (Dunst, Béart, Diane KrugerAsia Argento, Guillaume Canet) would take the stage, say a few words, then ask Burton, seated with jury, to read the card and proclaim the winner. Burton seemed to forget that he was supposed to make these announcements and turned his absented-mindedness into a funny running gag. It made you wonder whether anything so organic would appear again in his moviemaking. 

I watched the ceremony standing at the back of the house, alongside Thierry Frémaux, the festival's director, a compact, lightly stubbled, energetic man. If it wouldn't seem nauseatingly conceited, he'd make a fine host for the evening. Instead, he was a spectator.  He checked his phone once in a while and beamed at every winner's speech, especially when someone thanked him by name. He also made seriously sure no one obstructed his sightline, which in my case meant watching the show from behind some photographers and one of the Jason Stathams. And when it seemed that Bardem was not going to pose, with Kruger, who presented, for the gallery of photographers line the foot of the stage, Frémeux whispered in a panic, "Photos! Photos!" They were just waiting for Germano. 

One of the chairs in the jury box remained empty. In place of a person there sat a place card  that read "Jafar Panahi." Panahi was to have been on the jury this year but, since February, has been incarcerated in Iran for daring to speak out against the government and since Tuesday has been on a hunger strike. His straits and fate have made his absence from Cannes all the more conspicuous. After Tuesday, the festival refused to forget him. Binoche won the best actress award for her rich, comical performance in "Certified Copy," a Tuscan romantic comedy by Panahi's colleague and countryman Abbas Kiarostami, who's far from Iran with this movie but not really far from himself. Binoche spoke a while then hoisted up Panahi's place card and decried his situation. 

Mathieu Amalric and the ladies.jpg

Regarding the winners, there wasn't much to complain about. But many of us did think Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry" deserved better than the screenplay award. It could have won the Palme. It could have been elected vice-movie, too. It could have won the directing prize, which, not outrageously (if surprisingly), went to Mathieu Amalric. The theater seemed so convinced of a best actress victory for Yoon Jeong-hee, who plays a grandmother trying to solve, among other things, the riddle of her truculent teenage grandson, that when Canet announced the winner, it took a moment to register what had happened. Everybody loved Binoche. But not only was the emotional timbre of Yoon's performance extraordinary, she hadn't acted in many years, and so there were sentimental reasons to pull for her. 

The show lasted no more than 45 minutes. And afterward, before the jury and winners held their respective press conferences, people milled about, took pictures, and made phone calls in the lobby. I joined a small crowd that had gathered around Yoon, who wore a strikingly elaborate, plum-colored chima jeogori. We all offered our condolences. Nobody said, "I really wish you had won." But we were all thinking it. As she walked away, having given a group of strangers a good lesson in how to take a compliment (a handshake, a "thank you," a smile), I was left alone to think about what this all meant.

Lee Chang-dong and Yun Jun Hee.jpg

Once a year, for 12 days, a select group of film professionals and fans descend upon this gleaming dot on the French Riviera in order to enjoy one of the great privileges in all of art, entertainment, and business. Here, movies that may not register in the world beyond the Palais matter as much as life itself, in part because many of these films strive to capture, rethink, and reconstitute life. Excitement over an inexpensive movie about reincarnation from Thailand is a moving thing. That sort of enthusiasm is perfectly normal in this exalted atmosphere. But it feels scandalously endangered elsewhere. What you pray for every year is that even one quarter of that excitement spills out into the world. In the case of a lot of these movies, those prayers will go unanswered.

Would it be nice if everyone I know were to see "Uncle Boonmee" and "Poetry" and "The Screaming Man" and "Aurora" and "Boxing Gym" and "Octubre," a nicely drawn, deadpan comedy set in Peru. The truth, of course, is that because of the vagaries of film distribution and the vicissitudes of personal taste, not many people will have the opportunity or take the chance to see them. So many distribution channels (art houses, on-demand, video stores, DVD by mail) ensure wider audiences for more narrowly cast films. But the price is that, increasingly, we don't share the same dark. That is the ideal of a place like Cannes. We all embark on a moviegoing adventure and hope for the best. And yet it always feesl for naught if that adventure simply ends with me.  

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