Split decision at Cannes

CANNES — In a decision that reflected split factions on a diverse jury, the Palme d’Or of the 50th anniversary Cannes Film Festival was presented to two contemporary humanist dramas, Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel” from Japan and Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Taste of Cherries” from Iran.

A special 50th anniversary prize was voted to Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, here in the competition with the anti-fundamentalist historical drama “Destiny,” for the totality of his work. The Grand Prix, basically considered the runner-up award, went to Canadian helmer Atom Egoyan for “The Sweet Hereafter,” a serious drama which investigates the possibility of assigning guilt for a tragic accident.

Sean Penn was deemed best actor for his performance as an irresponsible father in Nick Cassavetes’ French-produced U.S. pic “She’s So Lovely,” while British thesp Kathy Burke copped the best actress award for her turn as a battered wife in Gary Oldman’s “Nil By Mouth.”

Hong Kong helmer Wong Kar-wai was voted best director for his impressionistic portrait of a gay relationship in “Happy Together,” and James Schamus won the best screenplay prize for his adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel for Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.” The Jury Prize was given to Manuel Poirier’s French road movie, “Western.”

Artistic vindication

By fest’s end, Kiarostami’s simple, direct study of a man considering suicide had emerged as the favorite among critics in Cannes, and his victory was not only seen as an artistic vindication but as a welcome riposte to the Iranian authorities who initially decided to prevent the film from being sent to Cannes. The way is now clear for the film to be shown internationally at other fests and to be sold around the world, although its fate within Iran is an open question.

By contrast, the triumph of the Imamura, one of Japan’s most esteemed filmmakers and winner of a previous Palme for “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983, came as a surprise. The film, which concerns the rehabilitation of a murderer, was relatively well received at its screenings early in the fest, but had not been the subject of much award speculation in recent days.

The prizes for Egoyan, Wong and Schamus, as well as for Chahine, were considered sensible, although the acting awards raised quite a few eyebrows. Ironically, Chahine’s picture was only bumped up to the competition, after having originally been entered out of competition, after another film fell out, and the print of the Kiarostami only arrived three days before the first of its two official screenings.

The Technical Prize was given to Thierry Arbogast for his cinematography on both “She’s So Lovely” and Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element.”

The Camera d’Or for first feature film went to Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Suzaku,” which was shown in the Directors Fortnight but had previously been seen in the competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January. A special mention in this category was voted to Bruno Dumont’s “The Life of Jesus” from France.

The Palme d’Or for short subject was given to Tessa Sheridan’s “Is It the Design on the Wrapper?” from the U.K., while the Jury Prize in the same category was shared by Lieven Debrauwer’s “Leonie” from Belgium and Emmanuelle Bercot’s “Les Vacances” from France.

The FIPRESCI international critics award went to “The Sweet Hereafter,” while a special mention was made of Manoel de Oliveira’s “Journey to the Beginning of the World.”

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