Surprise Moral Lesson from Cannes: Film Festival Honors Virtue, Snubs Hollywood

The 60th annual Cannes Film Festival ran from May 16-27, and a quartet of salacious American films failed to win prizes American media critics thought were theirs for the taking.  “Snubbed,” said Time magazine.

The winning films, conversely, were short on sex and sprinkled with moral lessons about personal responsibility, charity and self-control.  Knee-jerk anti-Americanism? Or has the world simply had enough of Hollywood's obsessions with sex and violence?  Perhaps a hearty share of both.

Cannes debuted with the Hong Kong film My Blueberry Nights. Blueberry is “aggressively chaste,” according to Salon, and “Except for a few cuss words it could probably be rated G.” A promising beginning.

“This year's selection was notable for its many strong female performances, though, unusually for this French film festival, most kept their clothes on,” declared The New York Times in a May 28 retrospective on the festival. 

The Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days took the Palme d'Or, Cannes' top award.  A flighty, irresponsible girl gets pregnant.  The sinister Dr. Bebe (note the name) brutally performs an illegal abortion but then demands sex from the girl as payment.  Social conservatives might recoil at some of the imagery, but within the disturbing subject matter might lurk the core message of the pro-life movement: casual sex has consequences, abortion opens women up to exploitation, and a dead fetus is a horrific thing.  4 Month's graphic images of the bloody baby may remind liberals of a pro-life documentary. 

The Grand Jury Prize, the second-place award, went to a film that must have disappointed the voyeurs even more.  The MourningForest, by the young Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase, has virtually no sex at all: It is a semi-autobiographical tale of how a young female nursing-home worker befriends a demented elderly man who cannot get over the death of his wife three decades before.  Forest is charity without the messy love affairs that Hollywood aficionados know so well.   

The Jury Prize winner for third place contained a great deal of sex, but Persepolis is also a jab at radical Islam and authoritarian governments everywhere, according to The Hollywood Reporter.  The sex scenes are graphic, but the film's portrait of Iranian Islam is no PC affair.

Hong Kong feature The Diving Bell and the Butterfly took the Best Director prize. Eros is AWOL in this film.  Instead the focus is on an artist who learns to live life in spite of paralysis.  The Diving Bell is about overcoming the odds, a personal responsibility winner.

Not every prize-winning film at Cannes was totally pristine, but the 22 prize takers did, collectively, manage to convey a number of redeeming moral lessons, and they generally avoided prurient sex scenes.

The American films, by contrast, were sexed to the brim. The Americans took home only one prize, the Cannes 60th Anniversary Award for Paranoid Park, a story based on Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, according to The View.

The other American films were a parade of self-hating decadence.  Zoo is about men having sex with horses.  Death Proof features a psycho-killer, a group of vengeful feminists, and graphic sex scenes.  No Country for Old Men slams America's redneck gun culture and throws in a little gratuitous sex.  And We Own the Night flaunts an amoral, lascivious nightclub manager who somehow “remains committed to his girlfriend,” according to Rope of Silicon.

Why didn't any of the four high-profile American films take prizes? Time's Richard and Mary Corliss suggest “anti-Hollywood bias” while Salon blames animosity against the Iraq war.  They probably have a point, but given the less-than-edifying content of the American films, maybe there's more to the story.   

David Niedrauer is an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.