France’s Justine Triet wins top prize at Cannes
France’s Justine Triet wins top prize at Cannes Image Credit: AFP

In the seconds before the Palme d’Or was announced at Saturday night’s closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival, the crowd felt ready to explode to its feet.

Through process of elimination, everyone had figured out that the winner would be French director Justine Triet for her riveting courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall.”

And with that win, she became just the third female director to win the festival’s highest prize, following Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993 and Julia Ducournau for “Titane” in 2021.

This is a year when an unprecedented seven films in competition were directed by women, after decades of criticism of the festival for failing in that regard.

The competitors included the only first-time filmmaker to make it into the main selection, Ramata-Toulaye Sy, the 36-year-old French Senegalese director of “Banel & Adama.”

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French director Justine Triet (R) is congratulated on stage by US actress Jane Fonda after she won the Palme d'Or for the film "Anatomie d'une Chute" (Anatomy of a Fall) during the closing ceremony of the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 27, 2023. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

Even the opening film, “Jeanne du Barry” starring Johnny Depp, was directed by actress and former model Mawenn (though it was not part of the competition).

Inside the press room, there was an audible gasp when the jury announced that Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” would win the Grand Prix, or second prize - clearing the field for Triet’s win.

Glazer had been the presumed favorite going into the ceremony for his chilling depiction of the family of Rudolf Hss, a Third Reich middleman living a pastoral life with his family during World War II on an estate that shares a wall with Auschwitz. The film is based on a 2014 novel of the same name by Martin Amis, who died at age 73 this month, soon after Glazer’s film premiered.

“The Zone of Interest” is Glazer’s first film in 10 years, following his hypnotic “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, looking for men to devour. During a brief news conference with the jury (which included Ducournau), reporters could not stop asking why they chose Triet’s film over Glazer’s, with one journalist blatantly saying that many members of the press liked “Zone” better.

The jurors shared their reasons briefly.

“It’s exactly what cinema should be about,” said “Triangle of Sadness” director and two-time Palme winner Ruben stlund, who headed the jury, adding that its members responded to the “intense” audience reaction during the premiere. “We are really keeping the critics out. We don’t listen to what you’re saying during this week,” he added, to some applause.

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Triet’s film “created a conversation and a conversation that we loved, and I would hate to put any sort of language to it because I think it’s worthy, as all films are, to be experienced,” said Brie Larson, who also sat on the jury with fellow American actor Paul Dano.

Coincidentally, both “Anatomy of a Fall” and “Zone” star German actress Sandra Hller, who may be the biggest winner of the night, and has been vaulted into the Oscars conversation. In “Zone” she plays Hss’s wife, Hedwig, who likes her life next to Auschwitz so much that she refuses to move when her husband is transferred. In “Anatomy,” she plays a novelist put on trial for murder after her husband is found dead in the snow outside their home in the French Alps.

Saturday was also a huge night for Asian cinema, with French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) winning for his lovely “The Pot au Feu,” which essentially depicts Juliette Binoche cooking in a 19th-century French manor kitchen for 21/2 hours. There were also two Japanese winners, with Koji Yakusho winning best actor for “Perfect Days” from Wim Wenders, in which he plays a soft-spoken man who cleans toilets, and Sakamoto Yuji winning best screenplay for “Monster” - a coming-of-age story of two boys from director Hirokazu Kore-eda that on Friday night had won the Queer Palm award from a jury headed by John Cameron Mitchell.

Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung poses with the trophy during a photocall after he won the Best Director prize for the film "La Passion de Dodin Bouffant" (The Pot-au-Feu) during the closing ceremony of the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Image Credit: AFP

Triet, 44, used her acceptance speech to talk about the protests this year in France over raising the retirement age, as well as the “merchandising of culture by a liberal government,” which she said had stifled the French film industry and made it harder for young directors to make mistakes.