Quentin Tarantino
Credit: Frederic Injimbert/Zuma Press

Robert De Niro’s face said it all: Wait … Are you talking to me?

This year’s president of the Cannes Film Festival jury took a few questions from reporters at the start of the annual movie showcase on Wednesday when one of the scribes decided to be funny. (Note to journalists, including yours truly: DON’T TRY TO BE FUNNY IN A PRESS CONFERENCE.)

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De Niro had just finished answering a question about whether he would direct again, particularly a planned sequel to his 2006 CIA drama The Good Shepherd. “I do want to continue. I’m working with [screenwriter] Eric Roth on a second part, and I’m waiting on him to deliver certain things. So … write him a letter, and tell him to hurry up. Please. ” De Niro chuckled.

Then a French reporter stood to ask, “Mr. President, first question: Are you talking to me? And second question: Did you f— my wife? Merci beaucoup.”

The cheeky reporter sat down while De Niro and his fellow jury members looked at each other blankly.

The reference explained: They’re famous “question” lines from De Niro’s movies, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Ooh. Right. Okay.

If there had been crickets in the room, they would have been chirping loud and clear. De Niro squinted in that, well, … De Niro kind of way. “What’s the question?” he asked.

The Q&A moderator repeated, without irony: “Are you talking to him? And did you f— his wife?”

De Niro looked at the self-satisfied joker. “I don’t think so,” he shrugged, implying … Who knows? Maybe, and proving that the only path to a true laugh is to underplay it.

The Oscar-winner also discussed his mixed feelings about awards. They helped his career, but he knows there is often politicking behind it. “Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it. But at the same time, it’s a double edged sword. There are good things about it, and there are things that … the obvious, which you’ve heard many times, is that the people who deserve it didn’t get it,” De Niro said.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

On the positive side: “It helps people single out movies that can get attention in a kind of ‘official way,’ which no matter what you say, at the end of the day, means something,” he said.

The leader of the Cannes jury inevitably wields some influence as the festival “singles out” its top features. Last year, when Tim Burton headed the panel, the Palme d’Or prize went to the surreal Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. De Niro’s comments indicate they may be looking for a smaller film that could benefit from the publicity of a Cannes victory.

Uma Thurman, who also serves on the jury, noted that many of the world’s greatest filmmakers have never won the award, and shared an anecdote about Quentin Tarantino, who claimed the Palme in 1994 for Pulp Fiction. “Quentin Tarantino was flashing his Palme d’Or around his apartment one day and said, ‘Ya know the only list of people that’s better than the list of people who have this?” she recalled, breaking into a QT impression. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘The list of people who don’t.’”

For more Cannes Film Festival news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.

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