CANNES, France -- By the time I walked into my hotel after the Cannes Film Festival award ceremony Sunday night, the verdict was already in. Scandale! cried the desk clerks in unison, summarizing the television coverage. Cannes was reeling after a list of winners so unexpected and generally unpopular that the TV commentators were rolling their eyes. The instant verdict was that jury president David Cronenberg, the unorthodox Canadian director, had led his jury into the hinterlands of cinema and camped there.
Only one of the alleged favorites won anything. That was Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish director of "All About My Mother," whose prize as best director drew a standing ovation from the glittering audience in the Palais des Festivals - partly because they approved, but mostly, it was clear, to send a message that at last the jury had produced an acceptable winner. As the applause escalated into a demonstration, Cronenberg leaned over for a rueful word with his fellow juror, actor Jeff Goldblum.
The Palme d'Or, or first prize, went to "Rosetta," a French-Belgian film by brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, starring Emille Dequenne as a teenage outsider. She won as best actress, to the astonishment of many who noted that the popular Spanish actress Marisa Paredes, who starred in both the Almodovar film and "No One Writes to the Colonel," by Mexico's Arturo Ripstein, was in the audience.
The Grand Jury Prize, or second place, which last year went to the wildly popular "Life is Beautiful," by Roberto Benigni, went this year to the grey, glacial and raw "L'Humanite," by Bruno Dumont. It was a police procedural about a dour cop who investigates a brutal child murder while enduring a life of utter depression. I admired it for the defiant courage of its alienation and despair - but was in a minority, judging by the votes of panels of critics in each of the eight daily festival newspapers.
Although the jury theoretically gives only one award to a film, "L'Humanite" won two more. Best actor went to its star, Emmanuel Schotte, who onstage behaved exactly like his character, regarding the audience as if they were bugs and he a microscope. Severine Caneele, his co-star, shared the best actress award with "Rosetta's" Dequenne. She was the first Cannes winner in memory who was missing a front tooth.
The Jury Prize, or third place, went to "The Letter," by Manoel de Oliveira of Portugal. It starred Chiarra Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, as a young woman on the rebound from a bad love affair, who marries an older doctor who has admired her since she was a teenager. Although I saw most of the entries, I did not see "The Letter;" colleagues argued over whether it was the second or third worst film in the festival.
At 91, de Oliveira is the oldest active director in the world today. That inspired a joke by veteran French actor Michel Piccoli, who stood up to announce the winner of the Camera d'Or, for best first film, and said de Oliveira had won it. Ho, ho. Actually, the Camera d'Or went to "Marana Simhasanam," by Murali Nair of India.
Piccoli's was not the least successful speech of the evening. The Palme d'Or was introduced by the French actress Sophie Marceau (James Bond's next girl friend), who looked wind-swept, began with "What a day!" and rambled aimlessly about how "there are more important things than movies - sick children, for example," until the audience booed and whistled, and the mistress of ceremonies, the poised English actress Kristen Scott Thomas, firmly interrupted her and asked Cronenberg for the name of the winner.
Other prizes went to "Molach," a Russian-German film about Hitler, for best screenplay, and to "The Emperor and the Assassin," by China's Chen Keige, for best set design. There's no quota system at Cannes, but festival boss Gilles Jacob is said to encourage the jury to distribute its awards so that major film-producing nations are not snubbed. It did not escape notice that Cronenberg's jury had no award for his fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan, and also shut out every American in the competition, a roll-call of independent legends: Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and John Sayles.
At the end of the day, the only English-language film that won anything was "The Blair Witch Project," the low-budget horror film that won the Prix de la Juenesse, or youth prize, voted on by a jury of seven critics between the ages of 18 and 25. Quite possibly Gilles Jacob was wondering if he should have asked the kids to take a look at the official competition while they were at it.