A Correct Cannes Sans Passion

CANNES, France -- The 50th Cannes Film Festival awards this year spoke more of political correctness and global sweep than of genuine passion.

Two films, both involving suicide, received the Golden Palm on Sunday night. Japanese director Shohei Imamura won his second palm for "Unagi'' ("The Eel'') and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami won with "The Taste of Cherry.''

With Canadian, American, English, as well as Egyptian and Hong Kong talent sharing the rest of the major prizes, this was a truly worldly ceremony, even if most commentators felt Cannes at 50 was more notable for its quotient of celebrities and sun than for the films themselves.

Hollywood had a lone representative in Sean Penn, chosen best actor for "She's So Lovely,'' in which his real-life wife, Robin Wright Penn, gave what was generally considered the film's standout performance.

Penn plays the volatile, hard-living Eddie in Nick Cassavetes' film, in which he has a long on-and-off relationship with Wright's feisty Maureen. Co-starring John Travolta, the movie will be released in the United States later this year.

"I love this country,'' a clearly moved Penn told the black-tie audience, singling out his wife as "fantastic.''

Best actress went to English theater performer and director Kathy Burke for her performance as the resilient wife of an alcoholic husband in "Nil By Mouth.'' The bleak, low-budget film marks the directorial debut of actor Gary Oldman ("The Fifth Element'').

Atom Egoyan took the grand prize -- generally considered the runner-up -- for "The Sweet Hereafter,'' a contemplative, mournful film tipped by many for the top prize. The Canadian filmmaker was on the Cannes jury last year.

Best director was Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai for "Happy Together,'' a rare Asian film that addresses homosexuality. Manuel Poirier's offbeat "Western'' won the jury prize.

The most popular decision, at least judging by the long audience ovation, was the career achievement award for 71-year-old Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, whose "Al Massir'' ("Destiny'') was in competition.

Chahine told aspiring filmmakers to "be patient; it's worth the wait.''

Among the Golden Palm recipients, Imamura, who is 70, last won the film festival circuit's most prestigious prize in 1983 for "The Ballad of Narayama.'' His prize was accepted by the film's leading man Koji Yakusho, since Imamura had returned to Japan. He is the fourth director, after Francis Coppola, Bille August and Emir Kusturica, to have twice won the Golden Palm. Two directors last shared the award in 1993.

The prize for Kiarostami carried a particular political charge at a ceremony whose winners confounded pre-show pundits.

"The Taste of Cherry'' was added to the competition line-up at the 11th hour when Iran allowed the movie to travel. The topic, suicide, is considered taboo in Moslem countries.

But no movie dominated the 12-day jamboree the way "Secrets and Lies,'' "Fargo,'' and "Breaking the Waves'' all did last year. And while the 1996 Cannes provided a pointer to this spring's Academy Awards, it is difficult to imagine the current winners cropping up at next spring's Oscars.

Besides Penn's acting award, the only other American to figure in the prizes was James Schamus for his script for "The Ice Storm,'' directed by Ang Lee.

Shut out altogether were the visceral, beautifully filmed "Welcome To Sarajevo,'' a film in the tradition of "Missing,'' which won the top prize in 1982, and "L.A. Confidential,'' Curtis Hanson's fiendishly entertaining film noir, with Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger heading an outstanding ensemble cast.

For many, the most memorable festival event was the honorary tribute May 11 to Ingmar Bergman, attended by 29 past winners of the Golden Palm, though not by Bergman himself.

The 50th Cannes Award WinnersAward winners at the 50th Cannes Film Festival, announced at the closing ceremony Sunday night:

Golden Palm: "The Taste of Cherry," by Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, and "Unagi" ("The Eel") by Shohei Imamura, Japan

50th Anniversary Prize: Youssef Chahine, Egypt, director of "Al Massir" ("The Destiny")

Grand Prize: "The Sweet Hereafter," Atom Egoyan, Canada

Best Actress: Cathy Burke in "Nil By Mouth," Britain

Best Actor: Sean Penn in "She's So Lovely," USA

Best Director: Wong Kar-Wai, "Happy Together," Hong Kong

Best Screenplay: James Schamus, "The Ice Storm"

Jury Prize: "Western," Manuel Poirier, France

Best Short Film: "Is it the Design or the Wrapper?" Tessa Sheridan, Britain Jury Prize for Short Film: "Leonie" de Lieven Debrauwer, Belgium, and "Les Vacances" by Emmanuelle Bercot, France

Separate competitions:

Golden Camera (for first-time director): "Moe No Suzaku," Naomi Kawase, Japan

Golden Camera Special Mention: "La vie de Jesus," Bruno Dumont, France

Technical Grand Prize: Thierry Arbogast, "She's So Lovely," "The Fifth Element"

--The Associated Press