1997 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Day 11: The Palme D'Or Awards
Back in the '70s, Mary Corliss called the Palme D'Or awards ceremony
"SCTV produces the Oscars." And, every year since, we think they'll
improve. They haven't.
The sun is still beating down at 6:30 and black tie and formal gowns are
de rigeur. There's the mayor of Beverly Hills... Roger Ebert in a rhinestone
vest... diplomats and sweet young things. Red carpets are on the beach.
Decolte rules. What Joan Rivers as the fashion police could do with this
At the slightly smaller theater in the Palais, the rest of us pile in and
watch the parade projected on the big screen. We have our eyes peeled for
who's been "invited" to attend because, unlike the Oscars, the
winners are notified in advance. Not exactly told that they've won, but
if the phone doesn't ring, you know you have not. If you are called, you
are informed that it "might be rewarding" to attend. It's a strong
clue you've won something.
Not always, of course. There was the year that the entire "Leolo"
crowd from Canada attended en masse and left emptyhanded. And when Spike
Lee had "Jungle Fever" in competition and was told to attend,
only to be there to accept the special award given to Samuel Jackson in
a supporting role.
So we watch the screen for clues -- there's the crowd from the Egyptian
film; Arthur Hiller, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts &
Sciences; and Adnan Khashoggi (I guess the prison bracelet is off). Roman
Polanski's wife sans Polanski, Catherine Deneuve, Gary Oldman and Luc Besson,
Sean Penn, Robin Wright, John Travolta and Nick Cassevetes -- the entire
crowd from "She's So Lovely." Sean is smoking Gauloise and looking
excrutiatingly uncomfortable in bow tie and tux.
After 45 minutes, the camera moves inside to an empty stage and a set that
looks half-done, with a waterbed as the floor. Woody Allen wishes "Happy
Anniversary" via videotape and, when the camera returns to the set,
a backdrop of old Cannes explains that what looked like a waterbed was supposed
to be the sea.
Jeanne Moreau was once again the mistress of ceremonies without a teleprompter
and apparently no rehearsals. She introduced the jury, starting with President
Isabel Adjani, having a bad hair day; Gong Li, looking gorgeous in a traditional
Chinese gown; Mira Sorvino, in a '50s formal dress that would've made Kim
Novak proud. And then came the auteurs... Mike Leigh and Tim Burton, looking
like an absent-minded professor with thick glasses and black-and-white striped
socks clearly visible. For a moment, my heart went out to all of the jury
for sitting through the least inspiring selection of films I've seen in
competition in twenty years.
The greatest fears that Johnny Depp or Gary Oldman might be rewarded as
first-time directors because of the star power were assuaged. The Camera
D'Or for directorial debut were the first prizes to be announced (honorable
mention to "La Vie De Jesus" and first prize to Naomi Kawase for
As each award category was announced, Jeanne Moreau introduced a star who
was to present the award and then called on the president of the jury to
"tell us de vinner." It went from "Madame President"
to "Mademoiselle Adjani" and then "Isabel!" from then
This year, there was no wave of boos to greet any of the announcements,
but no bravos either. When James Schamus won for his "Ice Storm"
screenplay and Ang Lee accepted the award for him, it was difficult to tell
if the applause was for the writer or the director. But it didn't matter,
everyone seemed pleased.
The best actress -- Kathy Burke of "Nil By Mouth" -- was really
a supporting role and a bit of a surprise, but no one could argue with the
decision because there were no starring female roles to rival it. And when
Sean Penn was announced as the best actor for "She's So Lovely,"
it was greeted with a sigh of relief. His performance was a revelation in
a film that lacked motivation and plot continuity. Best Director went to
Wong Kar-Wai for "Happy Together."
In choosing the awards, one can only imagine the agony of the jury in trying
to take into consideration countries, ideologies, creative freedom and good
filmmaking. As Lola Montez would say, it was time to "have courage
and shuffle the cards."
So the third prize, or the Prix de Jury, went to a French film, "Western."
The second prize, called the Grand Prix because they hate calling it "second
place," was given to "The Sweet Hereafter" by Canadian Atom
When Isabel Adjani announced two Palme D'Ors would be awarded, there was
a gasp and then a sigh. But soon the reason was clear. It was shared by
"The Eel" from Japan (a classic art-house film about a man who
kills his wife and finds redemption) and "Ta'm E Guilass," the
film that was barred from competition by the Iranian government until last
week. I don't know if "The Eel" has an American distributor yet
but the Iranian film definitely does not.
In a way, the prizes were not a surprise. There were no strong favorites,
there was no "sweep me off my feet" work of art. No "Secrets
and Lies," no "Farewell My Concubine," no "Apocalypse
Now." Each time I sat down in that glorious theater and the lights
went down, either at the 8:30 a.m. press screening in my jeans or all dolled
up to climb those red-carpeted stairs in the evening, I am ready to suspend
belief and be taken somewhere I've never been before. This year I was at
times assaulted, at times amused, and at times entertained, but never enchanted.
Ironically, perhaps, this leaves me looking forward to the 51st Cannes Film
Festival without the hype of the anniversary and without the need to somehow
be bigger and better than before. Maybe then the emphasis will return to
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