Cannes' Top Prize Goes to US-Made `Pulp Fiction'

Director Quentin Tarantino takes the Golden Palm Award for best picture

AFTER a screening of a commercial Hollywood movie at the Cannes International Film Festival a few years ago, a friend made an astute observation that has stayed with me.

Most of the other movies on view had been aesthetically ambitious ``art films,'' and the Hollywood entry had been programmed as a change of pace from the generally high-toned atmosphere. The audience had clearly loved it, however, not despite but because of its unpretentious determination to be as breezily enjoyable as possible.

This makes it clear why Hollywood pictures are the most popular entertainment products in the world. ``European films are good at making you think,'' my friend remarked, ``but American movies move!''

That comment came to mind as the prizes were awarded on closing night of this year's Cannes film festival, May 23. The jury honored numerous European and Asian pictures with unimpeachable high-art credentials. But when the time arrived for an announcement of the Golden Palm, the winner was Quentin Tarantino's accurately titled ``Pulp Fiction,'' an uproariously vulgar concoction that unabashedly indulges Hollywood's weaknesses for violence, sexuality, and locker-room language.

Why did it win? Not because it made people think, but because it made them laugh, cry, and shiver. Aiming squarely for the emotions rather than the intellect, it's a movie that moves, and the Cannes jury couldn't help surrendering to its spell.

THERE'S nothing new about this phenomenon, or about the tendency for American productions to walk away with the top Cannes prize. While the Golden Palm in 1993 was shared by two art films made far from the Hollywood studios, ``The Piano'' from Australia and ``Farewell My Concubine'' from China, winners in recent years have included Steven Soderbergh's quirky ``sex, lies and videotape'' and Joel Coen's surrealistic ``Barton Fink,'' not to mention David Lynch's explosive ``Wild at Heart.''

``Pulp Fiction'' is in the Lynch tradition, supporting its exploitation-movie plot and sleazy cast of characters with enough inventiveness and originality to make it a plausible prizewinner, if not a particularly respectable one. Tarantino's penchant for blending slam-bang entertainment with offbeat cinematic ideas is clear in the very structure of the film, which interweaves three separate but overlapping stories. All involve cut-rate criminals caught in situations that test their nerve - protecting a mobster's drug-addicted wife, escaping from psychotic kidnappers, eradicating the evidence of a messy murder.

The skill that most convincingly justifies Tarantino's emerging auteur status is his writing ability. He's genuinely gifted when it comes to spinning out dialogue, injecting humor and a scruffy kind of poetry into interchanges about such unlikely subjects as fixed prizefights, foot massages, and the best way of cleaning up a car where a grisly killing has taken place. Obviously influenced by David Mamet's punchy style, his dialogue has a carefully modulated eccentricity that performers love to sink their teeth into. Sure enough, another virtue of ``Pulp Fiction'' is surprisingly strong acting, not only from high-level professionals like Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel but also from such usually uninspired stars such as Bruce Willis and John Travolta.

None of this means ``Pulp Fiction'' is a resonant or memorable movie. While it's less abrasive than Tarantino's nasty ``Reservoir Dogs'' and the trashy ``True Romance,'' directed by Tony Scott from a Tarantino screenplay, it shares the shallowness and flashiness of those films, surpassing them in breadth but never in depth. This year's Cannes jury - presided over by Clint Eastwood, himself a filmmaker of far greater complexity than Tarantino has yet shown himself to be - was evidently beguiled by its solid performances and generally high visual energy. But in giving Tarantino the highest honor, the jury did little to raise the level of motion-picture artistry.

The jury's other major awards went to winners of widely varying quality. Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti took the best-director prize for ``Dear Diary,'' one of the festival's warmest and most lovable entries, focusing on Moretti himself as he travels around Italy and ruminates on such diverse topics as parenthood, motorcycling, physical and mental health, and the difficulty of being a creative artist in an overstimulated age.

Less felicitously, the award for best screenplay went to French filmmaker Michel Blanc for the comedy ``Grosse Fatigue,'' about a movie star who learns that a lookalike has been impersonating him in unflattering ways. Although it's often very funny, anti-homosexual humor and jokes about sexual violence make the screenplay its weakest element, not its strongest.

Cannes has a tradition of awarding ``grand jury prizes'' to runners-up in the best-picture category. Many critics were dismayed when Krzysztof Kieslowski's vibrant ``Red'' failed to garner one this year, but few observers quarreled with the two movies that did receive honors: Nikita Mikhalkov's sprawling Russian drama ``Burned by the Sun,'' about an aging Communist facing betrayal by a young rival, and Zhang Yimou's colorful Chinese epic ``To Live,'' about the experiences of an ordinary family over several decades.

An additional jury prize went to French director Patrice Chereau's historical epic ``La Reine Margot,'' which also earned the best-actress prize for Virna Lisi; and the highly talented Ge You of ``To Live'' was justly honored as best actor.

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