Au Revoir: Notes From One Last, Golden Night at the Cannes Film Festival

Today the area around the Palais was emptier than I've seen it in the nearly two weeks I've been here, but the air of anticipation seemed heightened rather than diminished: Everyone -- the locals as well as the critics and journalists who haven't yet cleared out -- has been waiting for the prizes.

The closing ceremony is set up like a mini-Oscars event, this year with Melanie Laurent hosting. I watched the ceremony with other members of the press on a big screen at the Debussy, one of the two main theaters here. Were people surprised when they heard that The Tree of Life had won the Palme d'Or? Not really, though the gossip ripple in the past few days suggested that perhaps the jury would swing in another direction. Who can ever say? The Palme d'Or isn't an audience-popularity prize, nor is it a critics' prize. The whole point of having a jury made up of filmmakers and actors is that they think differently than we do. Accepting the award for Terence Malick, Tree producer Bill Pohlad made a mild apology for Malick's absence, attributing it to shyness, but said that he knew the director would be thrilled with the prize. It was a straightforward and gracious speech.

A bit more awkward was the moment Robert De Niro, attempting to address the audience in French, referred to his fellow jury members as, I believe, mushrooms. But no worries! It's all part of the craziness of Cannes, craziness that has touched some people here a little more directly than others. Accepting her best actress award from Edgar Ramirez (star of last year's Carlos, directed by jury member Olivier Assayas), a glowing Kirsten Dunst could say only, "Wow. What a week it's been!" But she went on to thank the director who turned her life this week into just a little bit of a circus, Lars von Trier, for the chance "to be so brave and so free." The look of horror we saw on her face during von Trier's whacked-out press-conference performance is now just a memory.

As juries often do, this one appears to have spread out the prizes in a way that confers honor on the movies edged out of the top slot. Joseph Cedar's well-constructed Footnote won best screenplay; the marvelous French actor Jean Dujardin, star of The Artist, took the best actor's prize, performing a little tap-dance of joy as he accepted it; the Grand Prix was split between Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and the Dardenne Brothers' The Kid with a Bike, two favorites among some of the critics here. And in the category of most orgasmic acceptance speech was writer-director Maïwenn, who seemed in danger of hyperventilating as she received the jury prize for her Paris police drama Polisse. If only Serge Gainsbourg were alive to do a duet with her.

The biggest surprise of the evening, for me at least, was Nicolas Winding Refn's best director prize for the exhilarating, extremely well-crafted Drive, a Ryan Gosling/Carey Mulligan picture that most certainly is coming soon to a theater near you (it's slated for a September release in the States).

Drive isn't everyone's favorite: A few boos rang out through the Debussy when the prize was announced, but then, the Tree of Life announcement got some, too. Neither Cannes nor the wider world of movies is about consensus. Among those of us who care about movies, passions always run high, and disagreements are just part of the way movies take on a life of their own off the screen. The Festival du Cannes is a place where so many of those arguments, those rhapsodies, those passionate defenses, get started. Those of us who were lucky enough to be here these past few weeks -- to be the first to see these pictures that will ignite all sorts of discord and delight in the months ahead -- have gotten a head start. But now we turn these movies over to you. Who gets to see them first is hardly the point. They were made for all of us.

À bientôt!

Read all of Stephanie Zachareks coverage from the Cannes Film Festival here.

[Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images]