Gary Susman
May 26, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Good Will Hunting” director Gus Van Sant’s return to his art-film roots was rewarded with two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival closing ceremonies on Sunday. His film ”Elephant” won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, and he won best director. It was the second film in two years at Cannes to explore gun violence in American high schools (after Michael Moore’s ”Bowling for Columbine”) and the first made-for-cable movie produced by HBO to enter the festival, though its awards mean ”Elephant” is likely to hit U.S. theaters before HBO airs it.

After such studio fare as his ”Psycho” remake and ”Finding Forrester,” Van Sant has returned to making more personal movies like those that first gained him notice, like ”Drugstore Cowboy” and ”My Own Private Idaho.” ”Elephant” (so titled because, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, it’s about a problem everyone sees but no one wants to talk about) is a documentary-like look at the events leading up to a Columbine-like massacre. ”For years, I tried to bring one of my films to the Cannes Festival and this time, it’s invigorating to receive such a prize,” Van Sant told the crowd. ”Vive la France!”

The jury, which included Americans Meg Ryan and Steven Soderbergh, broke precedent by giving three films two prizes each. Besides ”Elephant,” they included ”The Barbarian Invasions,” a family drama by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, which won Best Screenplay and Best Actress for Marie-Josee Croze. Another family saga, Turkish film ”Distant,” won the runner-up Grand Prix award and Best Actor for its two leads, Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak.

Shut out were several high-profile pictures, including Nicole Kidman’s ”Dogville,” directed by previous Cannes prize winner Lars von Trier (”Dancer in the Dark”), and the Clint Eastwood-directed crime drama ”Mystic River,” with Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins. Also shut out was the universally reviled ”The Brown Bunny,” which nonetheless became the talk of the festival for its explicit and lengthy oral sex scene between Chloë Sevigny and writer/director/star Vincent Gallo (”Buffalo 66”).

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