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Cannes winners a strange crew

CANNES, France -- The survivors of the 52nd Cannes Film Festival met at the Nice airport on Monday like applicants for an emergency airlift. The carnage of the awards ceremony was still fresh in our minds. A jury led by the Canadian director David Cronenberg had produced a list of awards so peculiar that it is safe to say no one understood it except Cronenberg -- and perhaps some, but not all, of his jury members. "Perverse," Variety called the verdict.

"What I heard," said Todd McCarthy, Variety's well-connected chief film critic, "is that Cronenberg was a firm leader who imposed his views on the rest of the jury. He kept saying small films! small films! Some even said he browbeat them. This was Cronenberg's hand-picked jury, and the winners very much reflected his choices."

True, the jury included two actors (Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum) who had worked for Cronenberg, and others who perhaps shared his tastes.

Every jury reflects the tastes of its president, a fact acknowledged a few years ago by one disgruntled loser who thought he got the wrong award, and made a speech in which he gave "no thanks to the midget" (jury president Roman Polanski).

But usually the awards reflect the tastes of at least some well-informed members of the audience. Not this year. At last Sunday's awards ceremony, the audience reaction moved from incredulity to boos and outrage, and finally an outright demonstration. When the single popular choice was announced (Spain's Pedro Almodovar for best director), the audience gave him a standing ovation, one that was too loud and too long to be simply for Almodovar, especially since many of the audience members pivoted to look directly at Cronenberg and his jurors, who were making "What? Me worry?" faces.

Cronenberg's jury gave the coveted Palme d'Or to "Rosetta," a small Belgian film, unseen by me, about a disturbed young girl whose mother is an alcoholic. She lives in a trailer and moves from job to job, fighting to avoid her mother's fate. It may be a fine film (Ken Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it "heartbreaking and uplifting").

But few even saw it, because it was slotted last, on Saturday afternoon - a time traditionally earmarked by festival boss Gilles Jacob for a film he thinks has no chance of winning, since the jury has already formed its short list.

The film also won a best actress award for its star, Emille Dequenne, whose tearful acceptance speech was interrupted by boos -- probably not so much against her as against the jury, which by then was in the doghouse.

That made two awards for "Rosetta." After the Polanski jury gave "Barton Fink" three awards in 1991, Jacob decreed that in the future no single film could take home more than two prizes, but Cronenberg ignored him, and gave no less than three awards to Bruno Dumont's "L'Humanite," an unremittingly grim French-Belgian police melodrama described by Variety as "the slowest murder investigation ever filmed" and by Turan as "completely insane . . . had most viewers tearing at their hair . . . personal cinema reduced to the level of absurdity."

"L'Humanite" won the Special Jury Prize and awards for both of its actors. (Since that meant the best actress award was shared, maybe "L'Humanite" technically only won 2.5 awards.)

When "L'Humanite's" jury prize was announced, McCarthy said, the audience "hooted so vehemently at Dumont when he ascended the stage that the director basically turned away from the audience and directly thanked the jury for 'understanding.' "

The glamorous closing night audience in the Palais des Festivals was underwhelmed by the awards for the co-stars of "L'Humanite," Emmanuel Schotte, who played the policeman, and Severine Caneele, who plays his neighbor and figures in three sex scenes in which the final score is Animalistic Jiggling 3, Eroticism 0. Caneele's prize must have come as a surprise; if she'd had an inkling she might win, she might have gone to the dentist and had her missing incisor replaced. The jury itself seemed a little nonplussed when Schotte accepted his award, since he behaved onstage exactly as he does in the film: dim, slow-speaking, gape-mouthed, expressionless. Was it even a performance?

It is possible to create a justification for "L'Humanite" (perhaps the Popeye Defense -- "It am what it am"). I certainly admired it more than Turan did. It unfolded with a sort of grimness that kept the audience in their seats, if unwillingly. It is also possible to understand why the Jury Prize, or third place, went to "The Letter," by Manoel De Oliveira of Portugal. He is 91 years old and a vigorous legend. The fact that he did not get a standing ovation perhaps reflects the audience's general disgust -- that, and the fact that everyone I spoke to hated the film. The panels of international critics assembled by each of the eight dailies at Cannes graded "The Letter" pretty near the bottom of the field.

In the unique construction of the Cannes awards, there is a mistress of ceremonies. This year it was the unflappable, French-speaking British actress Kristin Scott Thomas. She stands behind a podium on the left. The jury files on and sits in two rows on the right. As the emcee announces each category, a star comes onstage -- not to present the award, but to introduce the category with some scripted boilerplate about how important writers are, or actors, or cinematographers, or whatever. Then the emcee asks the jury president to read the winner, which he does.

This would seem to be a foolproof system, but it broke down when Sophie Marceau, the French actress, breezed onstage to introduce the Palme d'Or. You may remember her from the recent David Spade film "Lost and Found," unless you understandably tried to forget him, her and the film as quickly as possible. She is the next James Bond girl, and on the basis of her Cannes performance may be named Ditzy Galore.

Announcing airily that she had a speech but wasn't going to read it, she launched into a rambling discussion apparently on the topic of "what is film." Films are often "merde," she helpfully informed the audience. There are more important things, like sick children. Furthermore . . .

The audience was booing and whistling, and Kristin Scott Thomas interrupted her, asking Cronenberg somewhat prematurely for his selection, which he announced so quickly that the audience could conveniently just keep on booing. At the Nice airport, one of the actors who was backstage with Marceau mused: "She seemed OK until she went on."

I do not for a moment pretend that my own taste encompasses the world of possible winners. It is quite possible for a film to win Cannes, be widely admired by people I respect, and still leave me cold. Last year's "Taste of Cherry," by Abbas Kiarostami, is an example. I remember standing in the Hotel Splendid's lobby, debating it with that excellent critic Dave Kehr, who admired it highly.

This year, again in the Splendid lobby, I said to Kehr, "You and I often have quite different favorites. I suppose you liked Cronenberg's winners?"

"Not exactly," he said.

Cronenberg's jury worked by commission and omission. It pointedly shut out every single English-language film in competition, including work by Canada's Atom Egoyan; America's John Sayles, Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, and England's Michael Winterbottom and Peter Greenaway. The movie world is so dominated by English-language films that in the video store down from my hotel I was able to find exactly one DVD of a French film ("Ridicule"). The world, oui, but the jury, non!

What message was Cronenberg sending? We might start by looking at two of his own recent films, the Cannes winner "Crash" (1997) and this summer's "Existenz." Both of them deal with forms of sexuality that are not erotic or even understandable to most people. The first is about fetishists who are turned on by car crashes, broken bones, wounds, etc. The second is about virtual reality at a time when computers jack directly into the spine through "bio-ports," and sex is in the imagination. I admired both films; neither tries to please a mass audience.

At Cannes, where every hotel drips with advertising billboards, and the biggest event of the week was arguably Sean Connery's visit, perhaps Cronenberg was striking a blow not just for the small film, but for the film that insists on directorial style over audience expectations. Most moviegoers choose titles that will show them, they hope, exactly what they want to see. The willingness to accept a director's vision, even if it's not your own, is the sign of a moviegoer who has advanced from passive, childlike consumerism into a more advanced understanding of the cinema.

But of course not every difficult film is worth the time; many directors have visions interesting only to themselves, and some films are just plain bad. One can agree with Cronenberg's purpose and still question his judgment: Are these really the titles to make a stand with? Cannes audiences are not unsophisticated. They come from many different nations and critical traditions, and if they collectively dislike a film, can the jury be right and all of them wrong?

Ah well. It's the business of a jury to stir up controversy, and second-guessing is commonplace at Cannes. But when two French films win the top prizes and the mostly French audience boos and whistles and stomps its feet, you get the feeling that next year's jury will be presided over by someone more mainstream. Bruce Willis, maybe.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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