CANNES, France — In an appropriate conclusion to an event that was universally conceded to lack surprises, the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday awarded its Palme d'Or to the film that had been touted as the winner sight unseen--Emir Kusturica's three-hour-and-12-minute "Underground."
Unruly, audacious, unashamedly excessive, this emotional requiem for a dying Yugoslavia overpowered audiences here with the frenzy of a bull gone mad.
"I wish I was Sid Vicious to sing my favorite song, 'My Way,' " said the director who had won the 1985 Palme d'Or for "When Father Was Away on Business" and the 1989 best director prize for "Time of the Gypsies." Then, turning to the audience whose rhythmic applause almost kept him from speaking, he added, "Why do I do my movies? To be loved by you, and I love you very much."
The only person in the Palais du Festival who appeared noticeably unhappy about Kusturica's triumph was Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, whose ponderous and elliptical three-hour "The Look of Ulysses," which also dealt with the Balkan crisis, took the Grand Prize, considered to be the runner-up award. "I expected the Palme d'Or, but now I've forgotten that and I thank you," he said, looking very dour as the crowd responded with hisses.
Kusturica's film is an impassioned and surreal look at the past 50 years of Yugoslavian history through the lens of a conniving opportunist who keeps a group of people in a Belgrade basement by convincing them that the war against the Nazis is still going on.
"I felt that I had to do something about a country that I loved, I had a big need to answer the question, 'What happened?' " the director explained at a press lunch earlier in the week.
A native of Sarajevo, now under Bosnian control, Kusturica considers himself apolitical, but admits, "I cannot see myself as the 40-year-old who as a 20-year-old cried when Yugoslavia won sports championships, now having to find myself under another flag, another country, another anthem."
With even the film's partisans wishing it was not quite so long, the director conceded that "for an American audience I would be willing to cut 15 minutes. Americans are very nervous." Having filmed for more than a year with a Gypsy brass band playing every day to keep everyone's spirits up, he attributed the film's length to his extensive use of improvisation, which he feels makes the work "as sincere, strong, emotional as possible."
More of a surprise than "Underground's" triumph was that both of the festival's acting awards went to British performers. Jonathan Pryce not unexpectedly took the best actor prize for his role as man of letters Lytton Strachey in "Carrington," but Helen Mirren of "The Madness of King George" was a pleasant shock as best actress.
"I've played many complex and complicated roles onstage," Pryce said in accepting, "but I've waited 20 years to play a part as complex as Lytton Strachey on film. I believe I had a better time playing him than he did living him." It was the evening's second award for "Carrington," which was also given a special jury prize.
Mirren's co-star, Nigel Hawthorne, accepted for the actress, who is in a play in New York, joking in his best King George style, "We've lost her to the colonies, what, what?"
The jury also gave awards to two of France's boy-wonder directors. Mathieu Kassovitz, 28, won the best director prize for "Hatred," a well-made but overly familiar look at disaffected youth in Paris' poor suburbs. Xavier Beauvois, also 28, was given the jury prize for "Don't Forget That You're Dying," a not particularly impressive look at the exploits of a young man who contracts AIDS.
Completely left out (it could do no more than share the International Critics' FIPRESCI prize with the Angelopoulos film) was Ken Loach's well-received "Land and Freedom." And not doing much better was Zhang Yimou's "Shanghai Triad," which had to be content with a prize for superior technique.
Winning the respected Camera d'Or for best first film was "The White Balloon," a gentle effort from Iran's Jafar Panahi. Getting special mention was "Denise Calls Up," a clever look at New Yorkers who live their emotional lives on the telephone, from director Harold Salwen--one of several films made with notable dead-pan humor. The others included "Manneken Pis" from Belgium (which won the Critics Week prize), the Swedish/Norwegian "Eggs" and France's "Augustin," whose leading performance by Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc was easily the funniest of the entire festival.
Otherwise, Cannes was once again characterized by being the place where opposite poles of the film world managed to tentatively coexist. Within days and blocks of each other, for instance, the Catholic Committee for the Centenary of Cinema hosted a round-table discussion on "John Ford, Christian Filmmaker," and France's pornographic filmmakers awarded their annual Hot d'Or to America's own John Wayne Bobbitt.
Easily the social event of the festival was the $1,000-a-plate Cinema Against AIDS AmFAR benefit at the nearby Moulin de Mougins restaurant. Benefit chairman Sharon Stone started the evening with an emotional appeal for more funds for research and ended it by snappily auctioning off model Naomi Campbell's navel ring for $20,000 to a Saudian Arabian prince.
As the surreal bidding went back and forth, an overeager Hollywood type wondered aloud if Stone would throw in a pair of her underwear. "Anyone who has $7.50 knows I don't wear any," the actress sharply riposted.
And that's why there will always be a Cannes.