Michael Moore clutched his face last night as if he were trying to rip it off. He was experiencing disbelief at the words that had just come out of Quentin Tarantino's mouth: "The jury is proud to announce that 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has won the Palme d'Or."
"What have you done?" Moore jokingly asked Tarantino, president of the 57th Cannes Film Festival jury, at the podium. "I am completely overwhelmed by this. Uh, uh, merci."
Moore's movie -- a President Bush-bashing production that enjoyed almost universal acclaim from international critics and festival-goers -- had been the hottest ticket in the town. Now it was the toast of it. And the portly, bearded filmmaker, who beat out 18 other films for the top prize, was staring dumbfoundedly at the tuxedoed, bejewelled audience giving him a prolonged standing ovation.
For Moore, the win was more than an artistic triumph. It amounted to a political hand grenade lobbed at the White House. The documentary makes no bones about its point of view: that President Bush's invasion of Iraq amounted to a diversionary tactic -- to take attention away from Bush's personal and business links with oil-rich Saudi Arabians, including members of the bin Laden family. It also portrays the president as out of his depth as a leader.
The movie, as of last night, was technically still without a distributor. Last month, Walt Disney, the distributor of the movie through its Miramax division, had blocked the release of the documentary, citing its politically divisive content. This left "Fahrenheit 9/11" high and dry as it approached its scheduled July 2 opening date. Harvey Weinstein, Miramax's co-president, has vowed to distribute the movie one way or another, whether by buying the film and distributing it independently or releasing it through a third party. Negotiations between Weinstein and Disney are ongoing.
"I have a sneaking suspicion, thanks to what you have done here and the response of everyone at this festival, you will ensure that the American people will see this movie," Moore said. Later he joked, "I'm happy to announce now we have a distributor in Albania. Which means every country but one can see it."
The whole evening, it seemed, had been a setup for Moore's crowning moment. When Jonas Geirnaert's "Flatlife" won a prize for best short film, the Belgian director issued from the stage a message urging "the American people not to vote for Bush." And moments later, British actor Tim Roth congratulated Geirnaert for his "brave" remarks.
As award after award went to everyone but Moore, a notable anticipation grew: It seemed that "Fahrenheit 9/11" was going to be completely ignored or given the top prize. There was a hint, however: The movie had received a special critics' prize the previous day. Moore, who had flown back to the States a few days ago to attend his 22-year-old daughter's college graduation, said he had received a call from a festival official saying "that maybe we should come back, but there was no guarantee of anything."
He dedicated his award to his daughter and "to all the children in America and in Iraq, and throughout the world who suffer as a result of our actions."
It was the high point of an evening that had split the prizes among the contestants. This was the result of a new directive to the nine-member jury from festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux that no film should win more than one major award. Thus, Korean director Park Chan-Wook won the runner-up Grand Prize for his hard-core revenge mystery, "Old Boy," while French filmmaking duo Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri took the prize for best screenplay ("Look at Me"). French filmmaker Tony Gatlif won the director's nod for "Exiles," a movie about two French-Algerians' journey back to their homeland.
And the acting awards went to Maggie Cheung for her role in Olivier Assayas's "Clean" and to Yagira Yuuya, a charming child actor in Kore-Eda Hirokazu's "Nobody Knows." Jury Prizes went to Irma P. Hall, the formidable Mrs. Munson in Joel and Ethan Coen's "The Ladykillers," and the film "Tropical Malady," the first Thai movie to be entered in the top competition.
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's "Moolaade," a drama about female circumcision in Africa, took the prize in the "Un Certain Regard" category (a secondary competition), and Israeli director Keren Yedaya won the Camera d'Or for her film called, appropriately, "Or."
A surprise non-winner was Brazilian Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries," about a road trip through Latin America by the young Che Guevara. The movie had drawn enthusiastic response from many corners. But the night belonged to Moore, whose film -- the first documentary in almost 50 years to win the Golden Palm -- may have received the distribution boost of its short life.
Desson Thomson will host a live on-line chat about the Cannes Film Festival at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at www.washingtonpost.com.