Special Film Festival Report

French Twist

Nicole got nothing. A Columbine movie scored big. The place reeked of garbage. CANNES 2003 offered more surprises than successes. Sacre bleu!

It's weird. It's bizarre. It's the end of the world.'' Chemical weapons? SARS? Evildoers? Mais non, cheri. Instead, la crise that inspired an agent to fret was a Cannes film festival that, in its 56th year, seemed less like a grande dame than a coltish ingenue: conflicted, confused, and trying to figure out what it was going to be when it grew up. Sure, it was the south of France, and there was a gaggle (though smaller than usual) of stars and a theater called nothing less than Le Palais. But regardless of the majesty of the setting, May 14-25 was one strange time to be on the Croisette.

This year, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux cut a higher profile, to decidedly mixed reviews. Anticipated films from past winners Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers weren't ready in time, and the final slate -- selected later than usual -- left attendees disappointed. The features may have included the big (The Matrix Reloaded, which showed out of competition) and the small (Denys Arcand's Best Screenplay winner The Barbarian Invasions, for which Marie-Josee Croze also won Best Actress), the explicit (Young Adam, starring Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor, and Ewan McGregor's naked assets) and the star-studded (Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, the lone major Hollywood premiere in the competition), but the 2003 festival lacked jolt. That goose-bumpy, giddy moment that occurs after something powerful screens simply never happened.

The reality that this year's festival was going to be off-kilter was apparent from day one, when a remake of the 1952 French romantic epic Fanfan la Tulipe, starring Penelope Cruz, bowed to critical raspberries. The paparazzi were disappointed as well: Tom Cruise, expected to be escorting his amour Cruz down the red carpet, had RSVP'd non. And when attendees left the opening-night screening, they were greeted by the scent of garbage, wafting inexplicably over the Croisette.

Then Lars von Trier showed up with Dogville, which stars Nicole Kidman as a woman taken in -- and then shunned -- by a small town in the Rockies. Kidman breezily glammed through parties and photo calls, and conventional wisdom had the movie taking home an award for her trouble. Von Trier also made what was arguably the festival's best deal, cajoling Kidman into a verbal near-agreement to appear in the next two films of a projected trilogy at the press conference for the movie. But Dogville didn't have its day: Instead, the nine-member international jury, chaired by French director Patrice Chereau (Meg Ryan and Steven Soderbergh were the U.S. members), handed both the Palme d'Or (the fest's best-picture award) and Best Director to Gus Van Sant for Elephant, an improvisatory Americans-kill-their-young variation on the Columbine shootings. It was the first time since 1991's Barton Fink that one film had taken both prizes, and the jury had to petition festival bigwigs for permission to make the double award.

Another two-time honoree was the Turkish film Distant, which won the Grand Jury Prize (essentially second place) and a salute to its stars Mehmet Emin Toprak (who recently died in an auto accident) and Muzaffer Ozdemir, who split Best Actor. The Iranian-French coproduction At Five in the Afternoon, a drama about Afghan women living in a post-Taliban society, took home the Jury Prize (third place) and the Ecumenical Jury Prize. By the end of the subdued closing ceremonies, it was clear to all that Cannes had suffered a subpar year. And given last year's treasure trove -- Punch-Drunk Love, About Schmidt, The Pianist, and Bowling for Columbine, to name just a few -- one could practically hear the spin: Just wait until 2004, folks.

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