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Cannes shines global spotlight on Austria's budding movie industry

Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" won the top prize Sunday at this year's film festival, which press and industry attendees agreed presented a weaker lineup than in 2008.

By Robert KoehlerContributor / May 25, 2009



CANNES, FRANCE – One of the most generous juries at any recent edition of the Cannes film festival handed out prizes Sunday night to 9 of the 20 films in competition, topped by the Golden Palm for Michael Haneke's period drama, "The White Ribbon."

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After having been in competition several times and coming away empty-handed, the German-born, Austrian-based Mr. Haneke finally scored with a film dramatizing strange goings-on in a northern German village just before World War I.

"The White Ribbon," which will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics, marks a notable departure for writer-director Haneke from his string of highly charged, intense contemporary-set films such as "Caché" and "The Piano Teacher."

Top prize for 'ethical' film

Making the occasion of Haneke's victory all the sweeter was the fact that he received the award from jury president Isabelle Huppert, his leading lady in two of his previous films, "The Piano Teacher" and "Time of the Wolf."

During the press conference following the awards ceremony, Ms. Huppert explained that "our jury meant to give the Palm to an extraordinary film that is in a very different tone and style from [Haneke's] previous work. He has made a film that is very philosophical and ethical."

Little-known Austrian wins best actor

The most enthusiastically received discovery in the competition was not a film, but an actor – Austrian Christoph Waltz, previously known only in his own country for stage, television, and film appearances, who proved the galvanizing center of Quentin Tarantino's ambitious World War II adventure yarn, "Inglourious Basterds."

Mr. Waltz's win made it quite a night for Austria, which has one of the smaller but more interesting film industries in Europe.

Drama in the jury box

Rumors had swirled for days that Huppert's jury was riven by disagreements over the competition films, which were widely perceived by both press and industry attendees to comprise a weaker group than last year's lineup, dominated by such strongly received films as "The Class," "Gomorrah," and "Waltz with Bashir."

Jury member Robin Wright Penn dismissed the rumors, then surprisingly confirmed them by remarking that "we could disagree and still love each other." Fellow jury member, British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, proved quite frank during the press conference, remarking that some of the films were “very long” and “very weird."

Vampire splatterfest, prison drama also take prizes

French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg earned the best actress nod for her role as a guilt-ridden mother in Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," hands-down the most divisive film in Cannes.

The grand prize, traditionally given to the runner-up for the Palm, went to Jacques Audiard's generally well-received French prison drama, "A Prophet.” Additional jury prizes were handed out to Andrea Arnold's working-class British drama, "Fish Tank," and Park Chan-wook's Korean vampire film, "Thirst," which opens this summer in US theaters.

Top screenplay honors went to Mei Feng for his script for Lou Ye's Chinese film, "Spring Fever." In a popular tribute to the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave and a way of acknowledging his competition comedy, "Wild Grass," master filmmaker Alain Resnais received a lifetime achievement award.

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