At Large

Robert De Niro Likes Cannes

Fortunately, there was a lot more to this year's festival.

By 5.24.11

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The 64th annual Cannes Film Festival, the leading international showcase for auteur films, closed Sunday night with the top award, the Palme d'Or, going to U.S. director Terrence Malick's Tree of Life featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The reclusive Malick stayed away from the ceremony claiming shyness, but Pitt and Penn showed up.

American actress Kirsten Dunst won best actress for her role in the Danish film Melancholia and French comedian Jean Dujardin took best actor for his role in the offbeat silent black-and-white comedy The Artist.

Cannes is a strange duck -- essentially a clash of cultures, small art films from little-known directors coming up against a few expensive, mainstream productions from "the industry." Some call Cannes the anti-Oscars, a competition with significantly less crass commercialism than Hollywood. Indeed, the megastars from California always seem somewhat out of place at this event.

Jury president Robert De Niro steered the judging of the 20 films that were in contention, culled from 49 entries from 33 countries. Action by producers and distributors on the periphery involved several hundred other movies looking for ways into the marketplace.

A weary De Niro was granted a prolonged standing ovation when he appeared on stage at the awards ceremony but seemed embarrassed and unsure how to react. He finally spoke in garbled, unscripted French and got a burst of laughter when he referred to the jury as his "champignons" (mushrooms). On the second try, with the help of a fellow presenter, he managed to say "compagnons" (companions). The rest of his comments during the evening were in English but hardly more intelligible.

This year's festival was a study in contrasts -- A-list American stars mixing with more modest Turks, South Americans, Ukrainians, Chinese, and others representing their own film cultures.

If anything, Americans were more prominent this year than in the recent past. Woody Allen, who snubs the Oscars but likes Cannes, opened the festival with his new production, Midnight in Paris, to affectionate comments from viewers and critics, several of whom said it is his best film in years. Shuffling around Cannes with his thatch of white hair and loose garb, he looked every bit his 75 years. Jane Fonda, 73 but looking 37, introduced the Palme d'Or award in her exuberant French and Jodie Foster, a better French-speaker, attended with her hors concours film The Beaver and its male lead Mel Gibson.

At the Beaver press conference last week, Gibson stayed away, apparently to avoid questions on his personal life. Ms. Foster did the talking but dodged any reference to Gibson's recent anti-Semitic remarks and threats against his ex-girlfriend. Gibson preened silently on the red carpet, as did hundreds of others from around the world throughout the festival.

A landmark springtime event in the warm Mediterranean climate, Cannes is treated seriously in international media. This year it was a bit different, however. Normally front-page news in Europe throughout the event, Cannes was knocked off its pedestal by an even sexier, wilder story, the saga of ex-IMF director general Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest. Only by Sunday night, when DSK was locked away in his temporary flat in New York, did attention turn again to Cannes, just in time for the awards ceremony.

The 11 days of events are wearing on participants but the final ceremony has been brought under control. While some winners ramble on and others are poorly translated, the organizers managed to complete the ceremony in one hour sharp. Oscars organizers may have something to learn from this discipline.

The leading French cable channel, Canal Plus, broadcast from a seaside set daily as personalities paraded through their interviews. Most were forced or just flat. The host asked De Niro for his best memory in the 35 years he has been attending the festival. "Cannes. Just Cannes. I like Cannes," he murmured.

The controversial Danish director of Melancholia, Lars von Trier, made the biggest commotion this year by stating at his press conference that he was sorry for the treatment of the Jews in World War II but preferred not to work with them when making films. He then added that in some ways he understood Hitler. As the audience of journalists and photographers sat stunned, he said jokingly, "Okay I'm a Nazi." But the Cannes organizers found him unfunny, pronounced him persona non grata the following day, and he left town. The Cannes brass called his comments "unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival".

A memorable moment was the award of the Jury Prize to the French film Polisse. Glamorous French director Maïwenn gasped and choked, never quite weeping, through her litany of thankyous as the red gown she was almost wearing threatened to drop off her shoulder and become a wardrobe malfunction. She seemed unaware of it but audience attention was riveted.

Cannes' auteur dimension is evident in the list of prizes, which went to directors and players from Argentina, Denmark, Ukraine and Turkey, alongside the more prominent U.S. and French winners.

Watching the event unfold over a week and a half, however, Cannes leaves a strange impression -- an amalgam of two separate cinema worlds. Fans in Cannes mob the Hollywood stars while the lesser-known players and directors from East Europe, South America or Asia make their way through the festival unnoticed by all but the cognoscenti.

The irony -- and the justice -- is that often these smaller-profile contenders get the recognition they need for their less commercial but more interesting work.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.