Cannes prize takes Moore by surprise

Last documentary to take Palme d'Or was in 1956

May 24, 2004|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CANNES, France - It's hard to render Michael Moore speechless, but the jury at the Cannes Film Festival did just that Saturday when it awarded the director the coveted Palme d'Or for his incendiary new political documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.

"What have you done?" were the first words out of a clearly flabbergasted Moore's mouth. "I am completely overwhelmed by this." Then, looking directly at president Quentin Tarantino and the rest of the Cannes jury, which has more Americans on it than any other nationality, he added suspiciously, "You just did this to mess with me."

In the audience, Miramax Films chairman Harvey Weinstein, whose company backs both Tarantino and Moore, stood with his hand on his head, equally stunned.

The nine-member jury's decision to give Moore the top prize further raises the profile of an unabashedly partisan indictment of the Bush administration and its policies before and after Sept. 11.

Moore, who had returned to the United States to attend his daughter's graduate school ceremony but was called back to France by festival officials, had previously won a prize at Cannes for Bowling for Columbine. No documentary had won the festival's top honor, however, since Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World in 1956. Still without U.S. distribution after the Walt Disney Co. forbid subsidiary Miramax from releasing it, Fahrenheit 9/11 also took the prestigious international critics award. It has been greeted by the festival's European contingent with near messianic fervor, and there was sustained applause when this award was announced at the Palais des Festivals. Some earlier winners also praised Moore and denounced Bush.

Almost from its inception, the film has generated a crescendo of publicity in the weeks leading up to the festival as Moore and Weinstein made the most of Disney's rejection of the movie. Moore wants to have it in U.S. theaters by Independence Day and out on DVD before the election, and Weinstein is in negotiations to buy the film himself and arrange for its distribution. Candadian-based Lions Gate Films, U.S. independent Newmarket Films (which released another movie that generated controversy, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ), NBC Universal unit Focus Features and Viacom's Paramount Classics division are believed to be interested in the U.S. distribution rights, but a deal involving any one or a combination of those companies had not been announced as of Saturday.

A Palme d'Or does not always have any effect on a film's box office performance, but in this case it likely serves to bolster the movie's profile.

Earlier in the evening, Jonas Geirnaert, the Belgian winner of a short film award, had used his acceptance speech to praise Moore and plead, "If anyone is watching from the United States, please don't vote Bush." Actor Tim Roth, president of the Camera d'Or jury (which gave its best first-film prize to the Israeli film Or), added: "I compliment that young man and I agree wholeheartedly. People should not be voting for George Bush."

Once he calmed down, Moore puckishly said he was "happy to announce that we have a distributor in Albania. Now every country in the world can see this film except one. I have a sneaking suspicion that you've ensured that the American people will see this film."

Aside from Moore's film, the internationally diverse jury's awards were all over the map. If there was a trend it was to acknowledge the Asian films in competition, as four out of six entrants from that continent were given awards that included the runner-up Grand Prix, which went to the Korean film Old Boy, directed by Park Chan Wook.

Both acting awards went to Asians. The celebrated Maggie Cheung won for Clean, French director Olivier Assayas' tale of a junkie rocker trying to straighten out and reconnect with her son, and 12-year-old Yagira Yuya was voted best actor for Japan's Nobody Knows, a delicate, casually heartbreaking film about four children trying to survive after being abandoned by their mother. The film's director, Kore-Eda Hirokazu, accepted for the boy, who he said had returned to Japan to take exams.

A jury prize was given to U.S. actress Irma P. Hall for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers, and the best director award was given to France's Tony Gatlif for his wildly over-indulgent Exils about "children of the Diaspora" who return to Algeria.

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