Yanks Take The Prize

When Roman Polanski, president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, announced that Joel and Ethan Coen had won the best-director prize for "Barton Fink," the knowing crowd in the Palais du Festival assumed that was all "Barton Fink" would win. Cannes is not like the Oscars; sweeps don't happen here; the awards are spread around with the political sensitivity of a U.N. negotiation. So later, when John Turturro took the best actor trophy as the title character in the Coens' dark comedy, a buzz of surprise went round the hall. Then the unprecedented occurred: the festival's big prize, the Palme d'Or, also went to "Barton Fink," the first time in Cannes's 44 years that three top honors had gone to the same film.

It was the third year in a row Americans walked off with the best picture. The oddsmakers had assumed that if any American film copped the Golden Palm, Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," about an interracial love affair, would be chosen-not least of all because two years ago Lee's "Do the Right Thing" was snubbed in favor of "sex, lies, and videotape." Just moments after the Coen brothers accepted their final award, the solitary Spike could be seen making a conspicuous exit from the auditorium. He has never been a filmmaker to take rejection lightly. The jury's sop to "Jungle Fever" was a best-supporting-actor trophy to Samuel L. Jackson, a category invented for the occasion.

It was a contentious year in Cannes. The "new world order" in cinema seems to reflect the chaos and anxiety in the real world, and no two people agreed on which the best movies were. The films reeked of dread and violence; one statistician counted 11 movies that had vomiting scenes. Rape ran a close second, cannibalism and political torture got their due, and the Russian film "Satan" featured a murder of a 10-year-old girl. But the unofficial winner of the disgusto prize went to the French film "Cold Moon," which culminates in the rape of a corpse by two sodden drifters. After a diet of three or four such movies a day, it was not surprising that most festival goers were talking about the scene Maurice Pialat didn't include in his three hour film, "Van Gogh"-this Vincent never slices his ear off. Restraint may be the only shock left.

The Coen brothers' new film supplied some much-needed laughs, but the levity only partially masks a harrowing fable. "Barton Fink" is a comedy about Hell-a.k.a. Hollywood in the '40s. Turturro plays a Clifford Odets-like New York playwright lured to California to write wrestling pictures for Wallace Beery. He settles into the crumbling Hotel Earle, where he befriends a gregarious insurance salesman (John Goodman) whom he takes as an example of The Common Man. What begins as a hilariously jaundiced satire of Hollywood vulgarity and New York pretension takes a black, surreal turn when The Common Man turns out to be a much more dangerous figure than Barton bargained for. Again the Coens take familiar movie tropes and twist them into something new. This may be their most haunting movie.

Lee is in fine form this year, too. The Coens create their own hermetically sealed movie cosmos; "Jungle Fever" takes its urgent energy from the streets of Harlem and Bensonhurst, where Lee's protagonists, a married black architect (Wesley Snipes) and his Italian-American secretary (Annabella Sciorra), come from. Their affair, which wreaks havoc in both the black and white communities, is just one aspect of this ambitious movie about race, family and class. In some of its most powerful sequences, Lee addresses the devastating impact of crack. In "Jungle Fever," he is stretching his imaginative grasp (his women have much stronger voices than usual) and refining his technique.

There may have been less hoopla surrounding a third American movie in the competition, David Mamet's "Homicide," but this disturbing, provocative tale of a Jewish cop (Joe Mantegna) torn between his identity as a policeman and his newfound identity as a Jew tells a tale we haven't seen on screen before. Mamet's crisp storytelling, his wonderfully heightened language and his rich ambiguities come together in his most seamless movie yet.

The most ravishing cinematic moments in Cannes were supplied by director Krzysztof Kieslowski in his Polish/French coproduction "The Double Life of Veronika," a mysteriously beautiful fable about two identical women-one living in Poland, one in Paris-who share a gift for singing and a malfunctioning heart. A stunning new star, Irene Jacob, won the best-actress prize for her double role, and Kieslowski's film picked up the International Critics prize as the best of the festival. Kieslowski's sometimes mystifying movie stirred up plenty of arguments but nothing like Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's "Europa," which was the love-it-or-hate-it film of the year. A dizzyingly baroque and self-conscious thriller, set in Germany just after the end of World War II, it struck many as the festival's highlight and just as many (this critic included) as an empty exercise in style. Amazingly, what looked to be the most forbidding film, the four-hour "La Belle Noiseuse," proved to be the one movie nearly everyone liked. Veteran new-wave director Jacques Rivette depicts the agonies of a painter (Michel Piccoli) and his model (Emmanuelle Beart) as he tries to create the masterpiece he'd abandoned 10 years earlier. The jury awarded it the Grand Prize.

But the hottest ticket in town wasn't for any of these movies. It was for entree to the Madonna paity at the Palm Beach Casino. In the days leading up to the screening of "Truth or Dare"-retitled "In Bed With Madonna" in Europe-art took a back seat to Madonna watching. At the Hotel du Cap, where she was ensconced in her $3,000-a night suite, guests were asked to clear the pool area when the diva wished to take a dip. The now dark-haired Madonna presided over her party in a roped-off area protected by large French guards who conveniently failed to understand the entreaties of the myriad Americans trying to con their way in. Fortunately, Madonna likes the media as much as they like her. Beckoning me to her side, she whispered that just before the party she'd played a game of truth or dare with Dino De Laurentiis, Rupert Everett and Jack Valenti, who was challenged to disclose his innermost sexual fantasies (here Madonna grew uncharacteristically vague). She herself went for the dare, and was bidden to plant a kiss on the lips of "La Femme Nikita's" stunning star, Anne Parillaud. "That wasn't hard," she admitted. "That was fun."

Outside on the dance floor, burly male dancers gyrated, wearing shorts, suspenders and four-foot turquoise feathers in their hair. The same day I had seen a Kurosawa film haunted by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki; a grueling film about a French photojournalist held hostage in Beirut; a bleak Polish movie dealing with anti-Semitism, and a German film in which a woman struggles with cancer. In Cannes, there was artifice to spare, but little of it was on screen. This year, real life was a lot sillier than the movies.