Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon Wins Cannes Palme d’Or

Michael Hanekes The White Ribbon Wins Cannes Palme dOr

For 11 of its 12 days, the 62nd Cannes Film Festival was in large part the Cannes Movie Festival. At a hallowed venue where minimalist art films usually dominate, this year sensation often ran rampant. Blood spurted from necks, noses, guts and, in one memorable gross-out moment, a penis. Extreme characters spanned the globe: a vampire-priest in Seoul, a French crime lord in Hong Kong and an American drug-dealer in Tokyo. Sam Raimi brought a horror movie about a gypsy curse, and Quentin Tarantino enlisted in a fantasy World War II. Gay lovers disported in China, and Ang Lee found psychedelic bliss in Woodstock, 1969. Hard-core sex and violence splattered the giant Lumiere screen.

Yet tonight, at the closing ceremony, the Cannes Jury restored order. French star Isabelle Huppert, the jury president, and her majority-female panel bestowed most of their benisons on difficult art films, not movies that strain to entertain. In a festival where 12 of the 20 competition films ran two hours or longer, and five clocked in near two and a half hours, the top honors went to a pair of these epic-length dramas. Austrian and French films received the top two prizes; an Austrian actor and a French actress took the awards for best performances, in English-language films. No American won anything.

Here’s the full list of winners.

Palme d’Or : The White Ribbon, Austria, directed by Michael Haneke

Grand Prix : Un prophéte, France, directed by Jacques Audiard

Best Director: Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, for Kinatay

Jury Prize : Fish Tank, Great Britain, directed by Andrea Arnold, and Thirst, South Korea, directed by Park Chan-wook

Best Performance by an Actor: Christoph Waltz, Austria, for Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino

Best Performance by an Actress: Charlotte Gainsbourg, France, for Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier

Best Screenplay: Mei Fang, China, for Spring Fever, directed by Lou Ye

Lifetime Achievement Award for His Work and His Exceptional Contribution to the History of Cinema: Alain Resnais, France

In prizes given by separate juries, the indigenous Australian film Samson and Delilah took the Camera d’Or award for best first feature, and Arena won for best short film.

There was little surprise that the main Palme went to The White Ribbon, an austere and lacerating tale of collective brutality and guilt in a small German village two decades before Hitler took power. This is a pure art film, daunting and demanding, spare and unsparing, making no concession to the prevailing popular taste — except, perhaps, film-festival taste. It was also, as we two Cannes veterans attest, the finest work in the competition. Writer-director Michael Haneke, a personally austere gent who has won prizes here before, with The Piano Teacher and Caché, was finally forced to crack a smile as he accepted the award.

The runner-up Grand Jury Prize went to Un prophéte , a complex, absorbing, fairly conventional prison drama directed by Jacques Audiard. In the manner of last year’s Palme d’Or winner The Class, set in a Paris junior high school, this is a documentary-style study of French minorities in an enclosed environment that sets its own rules. The main tension — and there’s plenty in the schemings of rival ethnic gangs — comes from the relationship of a young Arab and his aged Corsican mentor . When asked at the post-show press conference if he was disappointed at getting second place, Audiard replied, “What’s the problem Isn’t this a good prize” It is, and honorably merited. Both of the big winners will be distributed in the U.S. by Sony Classic Pictures, which is likely to make its the lion’s share of its loot from Un prophéte.

In Antichrist, Gainsbourg, daughter of Brit actress Jane Birkin and the late French singer-provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, played a woman so traumatized by her child’s death that she goes slowly, deeply, mutilatingly mad. Accepting her award, she called the experience “intense, sad and exciting.” If not the best performance of the festival, Gainsbourg’s was surely of the self-punishing kind that could be appreciated by jury members Huppert, Asia Argento and Shu Qi, all of whom have played similarly extreme roles. Waltz, the suave German on Brad Pitt’s tail in Inglourious Basterds, thanked the film’s “unique and inimitable creator,” Tarantino, because, he said, after 30 years in the business, “You have given me my vocation back.” Later, the press asked both actors what they’d think if some of their scenes were cut for international release by their respective directors. Said Waltz, impishly, “I think they are planning to cut them together.”

The shared Jury Prize had to be a disappointment for its two recipients. Arnold had taken the same award three years ago for her first feature, Red Road, and Park snagged the Grand Jury prize in 2003 for Oldboy. But the really startling awards were in the supporting categories. Kinatay, which depicts the torture, beheading and dismemberment of a prostitute, was almost universally reviled. In the critics’ poll for Film Francais magazine, this grotty little melodrama from Brillante Mendoza, the forlorn hope of Filipino cinema, was given the lowest rating of any official selection. But somebody must think that Mendoza really is brilliant. “It’s not a dating film,” one jury member, playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, acknowledged at the press conference. “It’s not a film I would see again.” But he and other members said they were proud to have honored it.

The jury that made room for Mendoza managed to ignore two men who are surely among the most daring, original and accomplished filmmakers in the competition, or anywhere else: Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, with his Penélope Cruz romantic drama Broken Embraces, and Palestine’s Elia Suleiman, whose endearing, deadpan The Time That Remains tells, in sour or poignant vignettes, the history of his family and his sundered country. Resnais, whose Wild Grass shows the legendary 86-year-old director at the top of his puckishly anarchic form, won a Life Achievement Award — which is Palme-speak for Thanks for Not Dying Quite Yet. After 60 history-making years in film, he deserved better, as did Suleiman and Almodóvar. Guys, we love ya, you’re great, but you’re no Brillante Mendoza.

But every new year at Cannes has its triumphs and disappointments; each critic is his or her own jury. Even the bad films are fun to think, argue and write about. We have been pleased to escort you through the 2009 fortnight, and wrap up all the words we’ve written with the most hopeful we know: A l’année prochaine! Same time, next year.