Gus Van Sant wins top prize at Cannes for film about U.S. high school violence

Monday, May 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CANNES, France (AP) _ A film loosely based on the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School by American director Gus Van Sant captured the top prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

Featuring real high school students, not actors, ``Elephant'' was well-received at Cannes, though the win on Sunday was something of a surprise.

Van Sant looked somewhat astonished as he accepted the Palme d'Or, saying ``Vive la France!''

The movie starts out showing an ordinary school day, with students gossiping in the cafeteria, playing football or working in the photography lab. The end is stunning and graphic: Two students go on a shooting spree in the hallways.

Van Sant doesn't offer any reasons for why school violence happens; he just presents it, and leaves it to viewers to think about.

Van Sant is best known for ``Good Will Hunting,'' whose Oscar-winning script was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But for Van Sant, ``Elephant'' harks back to the small, lower-budget movies he once made, like ``My Own Private Idaho.'' He shot ``Elephant'' in just 20 days.

While newspapers have given lots of attention to school violence, ``drama is an area that we're not supposed to really be talking about such things, because it is such a large problem,'' Van Sant said.

The title, ``Elephant,'' refers to the old expression about a problem that's as easy to ignore as an elephant in the living room.

``It's easier to leave it sleeping and not aggravate it,'' he said.

The director was the first American to take the Palme d'Or since Quentin Tarantino won for ``Pulp Fiction'' in 1994. Van Sant also won the prize for best director.

``Uzak,'' (Distant), a slow-moving Turkish film about a jobless man from the countryside who irritates his sophisticated city cousin by moving into his apartment, won the Grand Prize, or second place.

The film's two stars, Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak, shared the award for best actor. They played the two cousins _ both lonely and alienated, but unable to become friends.

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan cast two non-professional actors to star. Toprak, his cousin, died in a car crash just after learning that the film was selected for Cannes.

The screenwriting prize went to Denys Arcand for the French-Canadian film ``The Barbarian Invasions.'' Arcand also directed the film about a womanizing university professor who confronts death with humor and sharp intelligence. The movie had many viewers wiping away tears.

Marie-Josee Croze, who plays a young drug addict recruited to supply the dying man with heroin to ease his pain, won the award for best actress.

The Jury Prize went to ``At Five in the Afternoon,'' by 23-year-old directing prodigy Samira Makhmalbaf of Iran. The movie _ her third to show in Cannes _ is about a spirited young Afghan who dreams of being her country's first woman president. Many of its scenes have a haunting beauty, showing the country's ruined palaces and rocky deserts.

``Reconstruction,'' by Denmark's Christoffer Boe, won the Camera d'Or, an award for the best film by a first-time director, while the prize for best short film went to Australia's Glendyn Ivin for ``Cracker Bag.''

Van Sant has never had a film compete at Cannes before, though ``To Die For'' showed here out of competition in 1995.

``Elephant'' offered a very different take on school violence than Michael Moore gave in ``Bowling for Columbine,'' a hit at Cannes last year. Moore's film searched for the roots of violence in America by looking at everything from school shootings to racism to the National Rifle Association.