Films on dying and loss dominate 63rd edition of glitzy Cannes film festival

CANNES, France (AP) — The Mediterranean sun shone for most of the Cannes Film Festival, but the mood at the world's premier cinema showcase was somber, with this edition's lineup dominated by movies about death and loss.

There were fewer household names than usual at the 63rd edition of the festival — which wrapped up Sunday — and reviews of most of the 19 films in competition were lackluster.

The top prize, the Palme d'Or, went to a trance-like film about the last days of a man suffering from kidney failure who is tended to by the ghost of his dead wife.

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is short on plot but full of dreamy, sumptuous and sometimes surreal images.

Jury president Tim Burton said it was the film's unique vision that won over the nine-member jury, which also included Kate Beckinsale and Shekhar Kapur.

"I felt it was a beautiful, strange dream you don't see very often," Burton said at a news conference Sunday. "It's the type of cinema I don't usually see and again, that's what this festival is all about. ... You always want to be surprised by films and it did that for most of us."

Asked whether it had been hard to agree on the winning film, Burton, gesturing at his trademark shades, joked, "That's why I'm wearing dark glasses, I got a black eye today."

Loss was also at the heart of the 12-day-long festival's runner-up. French director Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men" tells the true story of seven French monks beheaded in Algeria during the country's brutal civil war in the 1990s.

The solemn movie focuses not on the monks' gruesome fate but on their painful deliberations over whether to leave Algeria or to embrace martyrdom by remaining.

The best actor prize was shared by Academy Award winner Javier Bardem and Italian actor Elio Germano for their roles as fathers dealing with death.

In Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful," Bardem plays a man struggling to prepare his children's future after he's diagnosed with cancer, while Germano plays a widower with three young boys in Daniele Luchetti's "Our Lives."

A family rebuilding after tragedy was also the subject of the festival's closing film, "The Tree," about a young girl convinced the spirit of her dead father lives on in a sprawling fig tree. Still, French director Julie Bertuccelli's gentle tone and life-affirming message contrasted with the gloominess of other death-oriented fare in competition.

Gore was also a hallmark of this year's festival.

"Outrage," Takeshi Kitano's Yakuza gangster revenge flick, is a bloodbath. The body-count is off the charts in "The Exodus," the World War II-set sequel of the tender 1994 Russian drama "Burnt by the Sun." And the ironically titled Ukrainian offering "My Joy" is a seemingly endless sequence of acts of gratuitous violence.

Still, some cheerier fare lightened the mood. "On Tour" chronicles the misadventures of a troupe of American strippers dancing in a burlesque show around France.

Actor-director Mathieu Amalric, who plays the strippers' down-and-out manager, brought the bevy of curvaceous ladies — decked out false with eyelashes and elbow-high gloves — onstage while he collected his best director prize.

The festival's sole U.S. film in competition, "Fair Game," Doug Liman's story about the Bush administration's outing of Valerie Plame and starring Naomi Watts as the covert CIA operative, came away without a prize.

Two former Palme d'Or winners, British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, also left empty-handed. Loach's "Route Irish" centers on a former military contractor in Iraq investigating the death of his best friend in Baghdad.

Leigh's "Another Year," a bittersweet portrait of a group of middle-aged friends grappling with loneliness, garnered mostly positive reviews. Some critics had tapped the film's co-star Lesley Manville as a top contender for the best-actress prize.

That award went to Juliette Binoche for Abbas Kiarostami's cryptic love story "Certified Copy." While most of Sunday's other winners used their acceptance speeches to thank friends and colleagues, the French actress turned hers into a political act, calling for the liberation of Jafar Panahi. Detained in his native Iran, the filmmaker had been asked to be on the Cannes jury and was the main cause celebre at this year's festival.

"I hope he will be here himself next year," Binoche said, as she clutched a sign emblazoned with his name. "It's hard to be an artist and an intellectual, and the country needs you."

Films from big-name directors mostly played out of competition. Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" opened the festival and at the premiere, the movie's stars, Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe, welcomed festival-goers with a warm "bienvenue."

Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan screened to mixed reviews.

Cannes-favorite Woody Allen was back with his latest ensemble romance, "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger," starring Watts and Antonio Banderas.

Despite the drop in A-list names compared with years past, movie buffs and celebrity hunters still turned out en masse to the high-glamor nightly screenings, where even the photographers are decked out in tuxedos.