Thinking small

Mixed pic bag grabs Cannes nods

CANNES — In results that many observers agreed were the most surprising, even perverse in recent festival memory, “Rosetta,” a small, cinema verite-style film by Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, won the Palme d’Or at the 52nd Cannes Film Festival Sunday, and a widely panned French entry by Bruno Dumont, “Humanity,” copped the Grand Jury Prize as well as two eyebrow-raising acting prizes.

Receiving the only sustained and enthusiastic standing ovation of the customarily ragged awards show, Pedro Almodovar accepted the best director award for his comic melodrama “All About My Mother,” the fest’s biggest popular hit. The screenwriting nod went to Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva for their study of a day in the life of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, “Moloch,” while the Jury Prize was given to Manoel de Oliveira, the 90-year-old Portuguese helmer who was in competition with “The Letter.”

Hard to choose

Handicappers of the Cannes awards were having a particularly hard time during the countdown to Sunday night, quite justifiably as things turned out. “Rosetta,” which follows a hapless young woman around as she ricochets between her squalid trailer park home and various thankless jobs and rejections as she desperately seeks a normal life, was screened for the first time on Saturday, the day before the awards, and didn’t even have a primetime slot. Pic was generally liked, especially by European critics, but is by all reckonings an austere, demanding film hardly conceived in commercial terms by the brothers Dardenne, who scored with their first outing, “La Promesse,” which preemed in the Directors Fortnight three years ago. Pic was picked up for North America on Thursday by the new USA Films in its first acquisition, and will clearly be given a boost by the Palme, which was awarded unanimously.

But if the “Rosetta” award was a jolt, things really got out of hand with “Humanity,” a two-and-a-half-hour account of the slowest murder investigation ever filmed that provoked considerable critical derision from everyone except, perhaps, certain French critics. If some members of the jury, as is indicated, were passionate about the film, then the Special Jury Prize would have made the required statement. In addition, however, the jury handed it two more awards, to Emmanuel Schotte as best actor and to Severine Caneele, who shared the best actress prize with 18-year-old Emilie Dequenne, who plays the beleaguered title character in “Rosetta.” All three thesps are nonpros.

Crowd stunned

The crowd in the Palais was perhaps too astonished at the prize to Schotte, who beat such favorites as Richard Farnsworth for David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” and Bob Hoskins from Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey,” to react much, but they booed Caneele when her award was announced, and 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.”

Triple awards to “Humanity” were also baffling in that, after a jury led by Roman Polanski broke the tradition of spreading the awards around by giving three prizes to “Barton Fink” in 1991, the fest stated that, henceforth, no future film should win more than two awards.

That wasn’t the end of the oddities. When the two Russian screenwriters were announced for “Moloch,” the German coproducer came on to explain how the film’s director, Alexander Sokurov, couldn’t make it back to Cannes from Moscow in time to accept.

Best gag of the evening was French actor Michel Piccoli’s wry announcement that Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest film director in the world, had won the Camera d’Or, the prize for best first film. He subsequently disclosed the actual winner, Indian helmer Murali Nair’s short feature “Throne Of Death,” which was presented in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

The only genuinely invigorating moments of the evening, and the shrewdest remarks, were provided by Almodovar, whose film rated number one in all the critics polls but was clearly too accessible and likeable for a jury demonstrably dedicated to the esoteric and specialized. As he revealed afterwards at the winners’ press conference, he perhaps couldn’t help feeling a touch of letdown at not winning the Palme d’Or after the press, particularly in Spain, had been declaring him a shoo-in all week, but added that he was more disappointed for his actresses.

Strong diplomacy

In a very subtle and actually diplomatic dig at how several other important directors’ work was ignored by the jury altogether, the Spanish filmmaker said that he wanted “to share this prize with Atom Egoyan, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Arturo Ripstein, among others.”

In addition to Cronenberg, jury consisted of directors Andre Techine, George Miller, Maurizio Nichetti and Doris Dorrie, playwright Yasmina Reza, opera singer Barbara Hendricks and actors Dominique Blanc, Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum.

Chinese director Chen Kaige accepted the Technical Grand Prize on behalf of Tu Juhua, his production designer on “The Emperor and the Assassin.”

Unanimous winner of the Palme d’Or for short film went to “When the Day Breaks,” a Canadian entry by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis. Jury Prize was shared by Song Ilgon’s “So-Poong” from South Korea and Rodolphe Marconi’s “Stop” from France. Members of the shorts jury were Thomas Vinterberg, president, and Virginie Ledoyen, Greta Scacchi, Cedric Klapisch and Walter Salles.