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Uncle Boonmee’s Charmed Current Life

Uncle Boonmee's Charmed Current Life

With jury president Tim Burton’s off-hand remark about how the annointed film took him to another world, it became clear how Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” surprised many Cannes Film Festival experts by winning the Palme d’or at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival Sunday night.

In a year when no competition film clearly stood head and shoulders above the others, it was likely that an offbeat or unexpected choice might slip through. As I wrote on Saturday night, I had been tipped off earlier that day that at least some of the jury had been very taken with the European-financed Thai entry, which had screened for the press for the first time on Thursday evening, then officially on Friday. As it happens, Cannes has always been very kind to “Joe,” as the director is familiarly called by people who will never learn to pronounce his name (I’d love to hear a quick montage of TV and radio announcers trying to deal with it Sunday night, and it’s a good thing the amusingly discomposed Burton wasn’t required to enunciate it onstage). Three of his six features have been shown at the festival and they have all won prizes; his second film, “Blissfully Yours,” won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2002, and two years later his fourth feature, “Tropical Malady,” nabbed the jury prize.

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All the same, I would be surprised if many of the jury members, and especially Burton, had been exposed to Weerasethakul’s work prior to last week. For a rarified director who makes video installations and is known only to a small international audience, he is somewhat more accessible than most due to his work’s fanciful nature, occasional humor, frank-speaking older characters and odd mixture of natural beauty and self-consciously fake creatures and effects, in this case a man-sized simian beast with glowing red eyes. Expanding upon an element in “Tropical Malady,” his central interest here is reincarnation, or the migration of souls over time between humans and other animals, represented here by an ox, monkeyman and fish, for starters. The whimsy prevents his films from being heavy and dull and there is beauty, but I personally don’t find his themes and preoccupations particularly arresting or any more meaningful than talented doodles.

As indicated by the rabid applause from pockets of the Salle Debussy, where the international press gathered to watch the broadcast of the always amusingly awkward awards ceremony being staged next door in the larger Grand Theatre Lumiere, Weerasethakul is a critical darling in certain influential quarters, beginning with those with a long allegiance to the high-art Rotterdam Film Festival under the leadership of Simon Field, who was the lead producer on “Uncle Boonmee.” Weerasethakul’s work doesn’t precisely fall into the category of “trendy minimalism,” my old friend Pierre Rissient’s prescient phrase for the sort of trying but fashionable Asian filmmaking that demands great patience and rewards but a loyal few; it’s more engaging than that and I can see where, by virtue of it simply seeming so very different from everything else around it, the jury might choose to single it out. Still, I’ll be surprised and impressed if “Joe” can emerge from “luvvy” status, as the Brits would say, to work on a bigger canvas and connect with a wider audience.

As for the other awards, there were enough questionable ones to raise more than two eyebrows. While I was personally relieved that Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville wasn’t named best actress for her obvious, pity-pleading work in the director’s “Another Year,” a critical favorite that went home empty-handed, it’s hard to argue that Juliette Binoche really knocked one out of the park in “Certified Copy;” she’s fine and successfully carries Abbas Kiarostami’s film, but Yun Junghee in Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” would have seemed a more sensible choice, as opposed to the screenplay award the writer-director received. For best actor, few could dispute that Javier Bardem is a great actor and honorably won it for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Biutiful,” but it almost belittled his achievement to force him to share it with Elio Germano for the embarrassingly awful Italian entry “Our Life;” one can only suppose the two Italian members of the jury lobbied so hard that an accomodation was made. No one had any problem with the French director Xavier Beauvois’ drama about monks staying too long in Algeria, “Of God and Men,” winning the grand prix second prize, nor with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun of Chad taking home the prix du jury for eminently respectable “A Screaming Man.”

But the puzzlement of the final weekend was how Mathieu Amalric’s “On Tour,” an entirely modest, at best passably entertaining look at a promoter hustling a bunch of new burlesque performers around France, could win both the best director prize from the jury and, especially, the FIPRESCI (critics’) prize. For many, “On Tour” was the least of the three French competition titles, after “Of God and Men” and Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpenier,” a film of infinitely more ambition, complexity and achievement than “On Tour.” What was special here, what were the judges seeing that virtually no one else saw? Very odd indeed.

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