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In handing De Niro Cannes jury gig, France honours an idol

Robert De Niro will serve as jury president for the 64th annual Cannes festival (from May 11 to 22). The announcement made on Thursday is evidence that the love affair between France and the US actor is back on.


After being questioned over his possible involvement in a Paris prostitution ring in 1998, a furious Robert De Niro told French daily Le Monde: “I will never return to France”. He would advise his friends against visiting the country, give back his Legion of Honour, and steer clear of the Cannes Film Festival.

But time heals all wounds as proved by Thursday’s announcement that De Niro will serve as jury president for the 64th annual Cannes fest next May.

“The Cannes Film Festival is a rare opportunity for me, as it is one of the oldest and one of the best in the world”, the famously terse and press-shy De Niro said in a statement.

Cannes festival presidents, Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux, were even more laudatory in explaining their choice to the press. They praised De Niro’s “chameleon-like flexibility” and his “precise, nuanced performances” in a variety of his best known roles, including young mafioso Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” and gambling mogul Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”.

Meanwhile, the French press responded enthusiastically to the announcement, with Le Figaro critic Jean-Luc Wachtausen saying that the selection of “a living legend of US cinema” was “good news”. “He knows European cinema well, so it’s a real opportunity for Cannes to have him”, Wachtausen assessed, adding “We hope that he’ll choose the winners well”.

De Niro’s presence at the head of the jury follows a tradition of US film icons (Tim Burton last year, Sean Penn in 2008, Quentin Tarantino in 2004, and David Lynch in 2002) entrusted with picking winners at a festival that strives to showcase international art cinema rather than brand-name Hollywood projects.
De Niro has long been loved in France, where he is known for his fruitful partnership with director Martin Scorsese and an unwavering commitment to his craft. "He is an iconic figure here, because he's known to inhabit his characters and do whatever it takes to play that role", said Franck Garbarz, a French film scholar and critic for the magazine Positif. "Very few actors will do that". 

Indeed, De Niro is one of the emblematic figures of the “Method” approach (which he studied at New York’s famous “Actors Studio”) through which performers strive for authenticity by trying to conjure their characters’ feelings and emulate their outer appearance both on and off the set. In two of the actor’s most dramatic physical transformations, De Niro packed on 60 pounds as boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and shed all body fat to play a chiselled psychopath in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”.

More recently, De Niro has been seen in lighter, mainstream fare, including “Meet the Parents” – the latest instalment of which, “Little Fockers”, is currently on French screens. These are not the films that De Niro's French fans prefer to see him in. "For the last fifteen years or so, many in France have been a bit disappointed, because De Niro has had very few interesting roles", Garbarz noted. 
But according to Garbarz, De Niro's reputation remains mostly intact in France, where he is remembered above all for his charismatic and disturbing turn as Travis Bickle, the unstable title character of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. That film, incidentally, took home Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or prize in 1976.
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