Monday, May 28, 2007

Vive la Romania!

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007; C01

CANNES, France, May 27 -- The international critics corps can be a tough crowd (if they don't like a film here, they boo), but they mostly agreed that the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival presented an especially strong slate of movies. At the awards ceremony at the Palais on Sunday evening, the head of the jury, British director Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), praised the selections. "I am told by people who come every year that this was a terrific festival. Thank you. The films were a pleasure to watch." They were also tough to watch, with meditations and stories about evil, sickness and death -- but filled, too, with the triumph, or sometimes just the mere survival, of the human spirit.

And so it was no surprise that the top prize, the Palme d'Or, went to one of the darlings of the festival, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. The film is set in 1987 Bucharest, during the waning years of the Soviet bloc. It tells the story of a college student who has an illegal abortion, her friend and the abortionist, who is also a rapist. Whew, no?

From the review by Variety: "Mungiu's goal is to visualize the overwhelming weight of the soul-destroying compromises of life during the Ceausescu years through clear-eyed, deeply humane stories. If '4 Months' is anything to go by, what Mungiu calls 'urban legends' are more urban tragedies, chosen from the thousands of tales illustrating the small nicks and cuts not to the flesh but to the spirit."

Taking the stage at the Palais, Mungiu said that because of the attention his film received at Cannes, "this story will now reach other people." He noted that "it is good news for small films from small countries that you don't need a big budget and big stars." The film was purchased for an undisclosed sum by IFC Entertainment, which plans to simultaneously release it theatrically in the United States and through its on-demand cable offerings. No date has been set.

The awards ceremony for the biggest and most important film festival on the planet is like the American Academy Awards, but not. The mood is much more mellow. In fact, Cannes today had that last-day-of-summer-vacation vibe, as all the party palaces on the beach began to fold their tents, and the bay emptied of mega-yachts. The pretty people and playboys headed east -- perhaps for the auto races at Monaco -- and the Hollywood money got on planes back to LAX.

There are police working security at the awards show, but the public can get close to the red stairs to watch the directors and stars climb the carpet to the Palais. There are babies in strollers. A few thousand people, max, they hold up their digital cameras or just watch. No pushing. Little shoving. The sound system plays . . . opera? The Oscars, by comparison, feel as locked down as Gitmo: very fearful, with lots of bomb squads. Here, a guest or media person walks up, flashes a ticket, gets a quick, careless wanding and is in.

Also, the awards show is over in a flash. No film clips, no musical numbers, no Billy Crystal. There are lots of double-cheek kisses. Some of the winners bring their handbags with them to the stage. The acceptance speeches can be just as hammy, weepy and giddy as those in Los Angeles, though. One winner confessed he has not worn a tuxedo since his bar mitzvah.

The American painter and director Julian Schnabel won a best director prize for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the French-language adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle magazine editor afflicted with "locked-in syndrome" -- mentally aware but unable to physically respond -- after a stroke. Before he took his award, Schnabel (wearing sunglasses) shook hands with each of the jurors, who were sitting on the stage on little chair/thrones.

"I thought I was making a movie about a paralyzed guy," he said, "but it's really a movie about these amazing women" -- Bauby's wives, lovers and caretakers. Schnabel sang a bar of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and had his actresses stand. Then he said, "They say the problem with France is the French -- and that's a lie." That was kind of weird.

Jane Fonda presented. She spoke entirely in French, which our French colleagues pronounced as pretty good. There were no prizes for Michael Moore's health-care documentary " Sicko" or Leonardo DiCaprio's " 11th Hour," because those films were not in competition. Of the 20 American films in competition, only Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" took a prize -- a minor one, the 60th Anniversary Prize. Skunked were David Fincher's "Zodiac," the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," James Gray's "We Own the Night" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." But they all got a pretty sweet ride here, with lots of critical applause and press attention.

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