''Fahrenheit 9/11'' wins Cannes top prize. This time, Michael Moore behaves himself at the podium

By Gary Susman
Updated May 24, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

After two weeks on the sunny French Riviera, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” is as hot as a film without a distributor can be. The controversial Michael Moore film, which Disney dumped as a political hot potato, won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at the 57th annual Cannes Film Festival. It was only the second time in Cannes history that a documentary has won the prize; Jacques Cousteau’s undersea film ”The Silent World” won in 1956. Moore, who notoriously used his Oscar acceptance speech for ”Bowling for Columbine” last year to rail against President Bush, was gracious at the Cannes podium on Saturday. ”What have you done? I’m completely overwhelmed by this,” he said. ”Merci.”

Numerous reports from the film’s Cannes premiere last week said that the movie had earned a 15- to 20-minute standing ovation, the longest in Cannes history. According to wire service reports, the film is still without a distribution deal in the United States. (Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein are in the process of buying the film back from Disney, which said it didn’t want to release the anti-Bush film and risk appearing overly partisan, and the brothers are shopping it around to other distributors.) Moore has said he hopes to have the film in American theaters by the July 4 weekend and on DVD before the November election. ”I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve ensured that the American people will see this film,” he said during his acceptance speech.

For the first time in Cannes history, the jury scheduled a press conference for the day after the awards ceremony to explain its choices. That decision proved prescient, as reporters wanted to ask the jury (whose nine members included four Americans, led by jury president Quentin Tarantino) whether it had picked Moore’s film solely for its anti-Bush message. Tarantino dismissed such questions as ”this politics crap” and insisted that the jurors had picked ”Fahrenheit 9/11” for its cinematic merits. ”We were dealing with reels of film, not politics,” Tarantino said. ”We all agreed that ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was the best film.”

Moore was one of two Americans to win prizes at Cannes this year. The other was Irma P. Hall, who won the Jury Prize (Cannes’ equivalent of third place) for her role as the stalwart landlady who foils Tom Hanks’ heist scheme in ”The Ladykillers.” She tied with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul for the film ”Tropical Malady.” In fact, it was a good year for Asian and French filmmakers. The Grand Prix, Cannes’ second prize, went to South Korean director Park Chan Wook for ”Old Boy,” a drama about an ex-convict seeking revenge. Child actor Yagira Yuuya was named Best Actor for the Japanese film ”Nobody Knows,” as a parentless boy who plays dad to his three younger siblings. Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung (”In the Mood for Love”) won Best Actress for her role as a junkie trying to put her life back together in ”Clean,” directed by her ex-husband, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. French couple Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri won the Best Screenplay award for ”Look at Me,” in which they also star. France’s Tony Gatlif won Best Director for the road movie ”Exiles.”