Cannes winners announced

As the 300 guests at the Salon des Ambassadeurs dined on a Mediterranean fish plate with assorted mushrooms, Piper-Heidsieck champagne and a Palme d’Or strawberry delight, the 54th Cannes International Film Festival handed out its top honors Sunday.

Jodie Foster, who bowed out earlier this year as jury president, fulfilled her obligation as the closing ceremony’s host. The awards were characterized as oddly conventional, with the 10-member jury sticking to more established filmmakers rather than the fresher talent from the 23 films in competition. In contrast, last year’s jury came under fire for giving the top prize – the Palme d’Or – to Lars von Trier‘s controversial and divisive Dancer in the Dark.

The Italian film A Son’s Room, about a family that is torn apart by the death of a child, took home the Palme d’Or, representing the first time that an Italian movie had taken the top honor since 1978. Its director and star, Nanni Moretti, raised both fists in the air in victory.

“I have often been told that this film represents a turning point in my career because it is a more adult, mature character. Maybe I’m not interested in caricatures any more,” Moretti said in a news conference earlier this week, as reported by Reuters. Moretti has been nominated for the Palme d’Or four times and previously won the award for best director in 1994 for his comedy Dear Diary.

The other big winner of the evening was Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film The Piano Teacher, a controversial tale about voyeurism and masochism. French actress Isabelle Huppert won the award for best actress for portraying a cold and sexually repressed woman who is titillated by one of her students, played by Benoit Magimel, who also won for best actor. The film won the Grand Prix award-runner up to the Palme d’Or.

“There are films that frighten you. You think they will take everything away from you, but they give you everything,” Huppert said when she accepted her award. “I thank Bach, Schubert and Mozart.”

It was not a stellar night for the Americans. The only big win for the United States was the shared award for best director by David Lynch and Joel Coen.

Lynch, whose 1990 film Wild at Heart won the Palme d’Or, picked up the director’s award for his moody, noirish drama, Mulholland Drive, originally penned as a TV pilot a few years ago. Starring a cast of unknowns, the story centers on a woman who loses her memory after an accident on the famed winding road in Los Angeles, and finds help in the most unusual places. The concept was a tad too bizarre for television.

“At a certain point you realize you’re in with the wrong people,” Lynch told the The New Yorker. “Their thinking process is very foreign to me. They like a fast pace and a linear story, but you want your creations to come out of you and be distinctive. I feel it’s possibly true that there are aliens on earth, and they work in television.”

Coen is a Cannes darling who has won two previous director awards, one for the 1996 Fargo and the other for the 1991 Barton Fink, which also won the Palme d’Or. He scooped up his third director’s award for his moody, noirish drama, The Man Who Wasn’t There. Starring Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton, this tale, shot in black and white, revolves around a hairdresser whose life is fairly mundane until he discovers his wife is having an affair, and he decides to blackmail the lover. Things appropriately go haywire, as they tend to do in a Coen film.

“Curiously, almost everyone in the movie wears a wig, or a hairpiece,” Coen said. “So Thornton, who plays the principal character, is wearing one, James Gandolfini wears one, Tony Shalhoub wears one, Jon Polito wears one … So the overall effect is that it really transforms the appearance of the actors. You almost don’t recognise them.”

The opening night extravaganza, Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge, enjoyed major popular and critical success. As did the Dreamworks’ animated film, Shrek, now destined to become an animated classic. Neither film was seriously in contention for the top honors.

If the Americans received little in the way of accolades, the Asian contingent at the festival fell flat on its face. Even though there were seven features alone in the Official Selection, only a technical award was bestowed on the Taiwanese sound engineer, Tu Duu-chih, for his work on the two Taiwanese entries, Millennium Mambo and What Time is it There?.

In fact, some festival attendees felt the best films were either made 22 years ago, the director’s cut of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalyspe Now, or still in production, based on the 25-minute product reel for the upcoming Lord of the Rings.

Jury president Liv Ullmann hinted at some tough times during the selection process during her introductory speech at the ceremony, as reported by Variety. Noting that unanimity did not always prevail, her fellow jurors “fill[ed] me with anger.” But she added, “we in the jury are still friends.” It was reported that jury discussion sessions, which occurred daily, would last several hours, as each juror was required to elaborate on their interpretations of the films in competition.

Melanie Griffith won a lifetime achievement award, which took on a bittersweet quality when a few days before her father had died. In a tearful acceptance speech, she said, “It’s hard not to see you out there the proud face of my father. Somehow, I know you’re here, Dad, and I know your smile is big and, you old cowboy, I know you’re up there saying, ‘Why are you wearing that dress?'”

In the parallel Cannes awards, the French film Amour d’Enfance (Childhood Love) won the best film award for the Un Certain Regard sidebar and the Iranian film Zire Noure Mah (Under the Moonlight) won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix. Sandrine Veysset’s Martha … Martha won the Directors’ Fortnight.

Cannes still remains a favorite of Jennifer Jason Leigh, at Cannes to promote her film, The Anniversary Party, in which she co-wrote, co-directed and costarred with Alan Cumming.

“It’s the only time I think as actors today you get a sense of what it would have been like to have been a movie star back in the ’30s and ’40s, when the premieres were really big, and you walk up that red carpet or that blue carpet, and it’s just incredible,” she told The Associated Press.