A large digital screen featuring a clip of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, puffing on his Lucky Strike in an endless loop, was the closest the audience at the 20th European Film Awards in Berlin wound up getting to the evening’s lifetime achievement honoree, Jean-Luc Godard, who had pledged to attend the December 1 ceremony, but who, when all was said and done, turned out to be the one blowing smoke. On stage, European Film Academy president Wim Wenders feigned surprise and disappointment, addressing his remarks directly to the absent French master: “Alas, you’re not here tonight, Jean-Luc, but your films are in our heads.” But could Wenders — or anyone else involved with the ceremony — really have been holding his breath for the arrival of an éminence grise notorious for gnawing at the hand that feeds him? (If so, he should have conferred with Centre Pompidou curator Dominique Paini, who in 2003 asked Godard to assemble a career-spanning installation for the museum, only to have it show up three years later, two weeks past the scheduled opening date and in a haphazard condition that one friend described as “an exhibition about the impossibility of creating an exhibition.”)

“When we invited you, you seemed happy about it, but then you changed your mind for a variety of reasons,” Wenders continued, alluding to an interview the ever-quotable Godard had given to the German press on the eve of the awards, in which he effectively disparaged the Academy for giving him the prize in the first place. “When someone says I have created a life’s work, I have to accept this,” he said. “But it is my way of criticism not to go there. I don’t have the impression that I have made a career.” Still, back in Berlin, in the industrial-chic event space that was home to the 2007 EFAs, Wenders strove to see the glass as half full. “If we, your filmmaking colleagues, could not accept another artist’s principles,” he surmised, “there would be no reason for an academy like ours.”

Indeed, after Godard, the evening’s other favored topic of discourse was the two-decade existence of the European Film Academy itself, complete with the screening of videotaped anniversary greetings from David Lynch (seen standing in his kitchen) and Wong Kar-Wai (who edited his message in staccato Wong style) plus onstage reminisces from Wenders and others about the lean years of the EFAs in the mid-1990s, when the ceremony had lost its television contracts and was forced to take place in a mirrored tent on the set of an Austrian comedy shooting in Berlin. Today, the EFAs ­— which are often referred to as the “Oscars of Europe” — are alive and well, broadcast in some 60 countries but barely registering a blip on the American awards-season radar. That’s not exactly a surprise, given that the vagaries of foreign and domestic releasing schedules mean that about half of the movies up for thisyear’s EFAs (including The Queen, Perfume and The Last King of Scotland) were entrants in lastyear’s Oscar derby, while many of the rest (including the Cannes Film Festival prizewinners Persepolis, The Edge of Heaven, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) won’t open in most U.S. cities until 2008.

That is not the EFAs only point of incongruity with its glitzier transatlantic counterpart: The speeches are pithy, concise and generally lacking in the American capacity for tawdry emotion and gratuitous self-indulgence. (“To put on a show like the Oscars, you have to be convinced that you’re living in the center of the world,” one well-known Euro filmmaker tells me with a mixture of envy and disgust.) Instead of splashy production numbers, the musical entertainment for the evening comes courtesy of the pompadoured Finnish rock band known as the Leningrad Cowboys, immortalized by filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki in his 1989 Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Oh, and there’s an open bar, which may have been partly responsible for the moment late in the evening when the acclaimed Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, recruited to present a career achievement award to longtime Martin Scorsese cameraman Michael Ballhaus, stumbled onto the stage and professed his admiration for Ballhaus by shouting, “I’m your whore, because all cinematographers have to be whores, because we want to make you happy and we love what we do. You fucking wonderful whore, come up and take your prize!” (Doyle could still be heard ranting as a videotaped message from Scorsese, who thanked Ballhaus for renewing his joy in making movies, was shown.)

In other respects, the EFAs resembled a reprise of the closing-night awards ceremony in Cannes, with Palme d’or winner 4 Months taking home the European Film and European Director awards, Fatih Akin taking the European Screenwriter prize for his Turkish-German border-crossing drama The Edge of Heaven, and the Israel-France co-production The Band’s Visit (which screened in Cannes’ sidebar Un Certain Regard section) collecting the European Actor (for star Sasson Gabai) and European Discovery trophies. In what was deemed one of the evening’s few surprises, The Queen’s Helen Mirren added one more best actress statue to her mantle, besting La Vie en Rose star Marion Cotillard — a showdown Cotillard is doubtless thankful she won’t have to face at next year’s Oscars, where she remains the odds-on favorite. In a welcome departure from the Oscar norm, the wealth was evenly distributed, and award recipients seemed to have been chosen on the basis of merit rather than the size of their grosses or number of previous unrewarded nominations. It was in that same spirit of democracy that the French screen’s reigning grande dame, Jeanne Moreau, took to the stage to present the evening’s final award, proclaimed herself proud to be one of the “fucking wonderful whores” of the cinema, and bid us adieu.

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