CANNES, France — For the third time in the last six years, the Cannes Film Festival awarded its Palme d'Or to an American lowlife serenade, Quentin Tarantino's showy salute to the cool and the crazy, "Pulp Fiction."
Probably the most talked about film at the festival, though not necessarily the most admired, "Pulp Fiction" follows in the footsteps of the 1990 Palme to David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" and the 1991 Palme to the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink." Still, its selection surprised many in the Palais du Festival audience, including one woman who was so upset she began screaming at the writer-director as he tried to begin his speech.
Tarantino, whose first film, "Reservoir Dogs," was a similarly audacious look at gangsters both violent and loquacious, said he too was surprised.
"I never expect to win anything when a jury has to decide," he said, "because I don't make the kinds of movies that bring people together. I make the kinds of movies that split people apart."
Tarantino then thanked his extensive cast, which includes John Travolta in a charming performance that can't help but put some oomph into his career, saying, "when they got finished, they turned a pretty good script into an obsolete document."
Two films by celebrated directors shared the Grand Prix du Jury, Cannes' runner-up award. They were Zhang Yimou's "To Live" from China and Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt by the Sun" from Russia, an extraordinarily evocative and humanistic film about the Soviet Union on the eve of Stalin's purges that stars both the director and his charming 6-year-old daughter.
Since "To Live," an intimate epic about 20th-Century Chinese history, has not found favor with that country's authorities, Zhang Yimou was not allowed to attend the festival. His award was accepted by his star, Gong Li, who minutes before had shed a rare public tear when her co-star, Ge You, thanked her after winning the prize for best actor.
Ge You's award was yet another festival surprise; the actor himself did a double take when his name was announced. He beat out several more prominent actors, including Albert Finney in "The Browning Version" and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Krysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red." In fact, the Kieslowski film, probably the best liked across the board at the entire festival, ended up with no prizes at all.
Also unexpectedly getting two prizes was the operatic French historical epic "Queen Margot," which even French critics have not been high on. It won a jury prize, "for originality," as well as the best actress award, not for star Isabelle Adjani, but rather for veteran Italian actress Virna Lisi, who played her monstrous mother, Catherine de Medici.
Lisi, in tears from beginning to end, thanked the historical Catherine, "an incredible woman to have given me this character to play."
One of the other French entrants, Michel Blanc's engaging "Gross Fatigue," a Gallic "The Player" about a double who makes a movie star's life miserable, also took two awards, one for screenplay (given for the first time in 10 years) and one for technical merit.
And the coveted Camera d'Or for the best film in the entire festival also went to a French production, "Petit Arrangements Avec Les Morts," directed by Pascale Ferran. Since this film showed in the subtitle-less Cinemas En France section, it got away from most American writers. Aside from "Pulp Fiction," the American film that did best at Cannes was Kevin Smith's engaging "Clerks," the hit of the Sundance Film Festival. It won both the Prix de la Jeunesse, awarded, as the name indicates, by a jury of young people, and the same Critics Week prize that in previous years went to "Cronos" and "Man Bites Dog."
Almost lost in all this Franco-American excitement was the best director prize, which went to the Italian Nanni Moretti for his "Caro Diario," a wry and idiosyncratic satire on life in Italy very much, it was universally agreed, in the manner of Woody Allen. A bit dumbfounded by his award, like almost everyone else in this most unexpected of Cannes ceremonies, Moretti simply shrugged and said, "Thank you very much. I can't think of anything else to say."