This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
The jury stunned but did not displease a black-tie audience here Sunday night, with the awards for the 54th Cannes Film Festival. It's not that the winners were unpopular, but that they were unexpected. Everyone predicted Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room," the story of an Italian family devastated by the death of a son, would win something but not the Palme d'Or, or top prize. Everyone expected French legend Isabelle Huppert to win as best actress for her searing performance in "The Piano Teacher," and she did -- but not that the film also would win for best actor and take home the special jury prize.
There were hints of dissent on the jury when its president, Liv Ullmann, referred to passion and "even anger" in their discussions. I heard rumors that Billy Bob Thornton, the star of the Coen Brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), was asked to fly back for the ceremonies and then waved off. It was whispered that the unexpected Best Actor award to Benoit Magimel for "The Piano Teacher" might show the influence of Mathieu Kassovitz, the fiery young French actor-director on the jury.
The director's award was shared by two Americans, David Lynch and Joel Coen, both former winners of the Palm d'Or (Coen for "Barton Fink" in 1991, Lynch for "Wild at Heart" in 1990). Lynch won for "Mulholland Drive," a nightmarish noir about Hollywood crime and sex; Coen, working as always with his writer-producer brother Ethan, won with "The Man Who Wasn't There," with Thornton as a barber whose cheating wife (Frances McDormand) inspires him to attempt a deadly scam.
The best screenplay award went to Danis Tanovic of Bosnia for "No Man's Land" (2001), a darkly ironic film that takes place between Bosnian and Serbian lines in 1993 when soldiers from both sides are trapped together in a trench with an apparently dead man who has fallen on a land mine. He turns out to be alive after all; if he moves, they all die.
In a festival with many strong entries from Asia, there was only one prize for that part of the world, a technical award to famed sound engineer Tuu Duu-Chih, who worked on Hsiao-hsien Hou's "Millennium Mambo," about a disco girl trapped in a spiral of drugs and degradation. The Camera d'Or winner, for the best film, was "Atanarjuat" ("The Fast Runner") by Zacharias Kunuk, an Inuit film made in the Arctic Circle.
Festival president Gilles Jacob strongly advises the jury that the awards should be passed around. The three top prizes for "The Piano Teacher," raised eyebrows in a competition where the French giants Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette were passed over despite the success of their films. It also was surprising that two of the festival's best-received films, "Kandahar" by Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf, about a woman trying to sneak into Afghanistan to save her sister, and "The Officer's Ward" by France's Francois Dupeyron, about a man horribly scarred in World War I, went home empty-handed.
The Palme d'Or winner, Moretti's "The Son's Room," is a tender, moving film that seems destined for popular success. He stars, as a father whose son's death ends a long period of serenity for his family and generates painful guilt and second thoughts. "The Piano Teacher" stars Huppert as a virginal 40-ish piano teacher whose young student (Magimel) boldly tries to seduce her, and is overwhelmed by the passionate sadomasochistic volcano he uncovers.
Unlike the Academy Awards, which last for hours and hours and are punctuated by countless commercials, the Cannes award ceremony lasts about 30 minutes. The jury files onstage and sits to the right. The emcee (this year, Charlotte Rampling) takes a podium to the left. There is no opening monologue. Famous presenters (this year including Hollywood stars Jodie Foster, Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas) introduce each category, the emcee asks the jury president (Liv Ullmann) for the winner, and she announces it. Usually winners actually say something in their acceptance speeches instead of reading a laundry list of thanks. Then the lights go out, and everybody watches a movie.
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