If the Cannes audience doesn’t like your film, they boo. Loudly. Such honesty and egality would be unthinkable in Hollywood, where movie stars and moguls are regarded as gods, no matter how mediocre their output.
The 64th Cannes Film Festival begins on May 11 with Robert de Niro this year’s president of the jury, and opens with Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. One imagines it will be rather more well received than last year’s Robin Hood remake by Ridley Scott; Cannes has always been about the art of cinema rather than the chi-ching of the box office. This year Ireland is represented by Rebecca Daly’s debut feature film The Other Side of Sleep in the independent Director’s Fortnight. Another entry, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, starring Sean Penn, was partly filmed in Ireland and supported by the Irish Film Board.
We love Cannes because it showcases proper films, rather than big budget multiplex fodder. Weirdly, we owe it all to fascism, because this is how the festival came about. In the 1930s, the main European film festival was the Mostra di Venezia — Venice Film Festival — which was first held in 1932. As the decade continued, films from fascist Germany and Italy were increasingly favoured, culminating in 1938 when Jean Renoir’s anti-war film La Grande Illusion — the critics’ and audience’s favourite — lost the main prize, the Coppa Mussolini, to two joint winners: Leni Riefenstahl’s fascist propaganda film Olympia, commissioned by Goebbles, and an Italian film involving Mussolini’s own son.
The French were furious, and withdrew from the festival, swiftly followed by the British and Americans. In France a group including Louis Lumiere, the co-inventor of cinema, petitioned the government to stage a French festival that would concentrate on art rather than politics. Despite being wary of upsetting the fascists, the government acquiesced and Cannes was selected over Biarritz for the venue. The first Cannes Film Festival was set to run for the month of September in 1939, but began on the same day as Hitler invaded Poland and was abandoned the next day.
The festival began again in 1946, when the jury awarded the top prize — le Prix du Festival — to 11 films, including Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Jean Cocteau described the festival as “an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could contact each other directly and speak the same language”.
And it grew. The event moved to springtime, and in 1955 the Grand Prix was replaced with the Palme D’Or. And alongside ground-breaking film came the birth of the starlet — in 1953 a brunette called Brigitte Bardot caused consternation by appearing on the beach wearing just a bikini. Almost immediately, Roger Vadim cast her in And God Created Woman.
Fellini’s Dolce Vita, with its fabulous image of Anita Ekberg in Rome’s Trevi Fountain, won the Palme D’Or in 1960. The 60s also saw the establishment of Marche du Film, which meant that alongside the art, creativity and glamour, a whole new side of the festival sprung up as film makers, buyers and sellers converged to trade.
In 1969, Easy Rider won Dennis Hopper the Cannes First Film Award; he and fellow co stars Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda raised hell, paving the way for fellow American creatives in the following decade. Robert Altman won the main prize in 1970 with M*A*S*H*, setting a precedent for up-and-coming American directors Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. The latter won two Palme D’Ors within five years, with The Conversation in 1974 and Apocalypse Now in 1979.
Taxi Driver won the Palme D’Or in 1976 — to the disapproval of jury president Tennessee Williams, who believed that “films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus”. More daring work also featured in films like Truffaut’s La Grand Bouffe and Japanese art-porn film The Realm of the Senses — both distinctly non-Hollywood.
In the 1980s the festival relocated to the purpose-built Palais de Festivals, nicknamed ‘the Bunker’ by critics, and became more red-carpet oriented. Winners that decade included Sex Lies & Videotape, directed by Steven Soderburgh while still in his twenties, plus Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Wim Wender’s Paris Texas, and Roland Joffe’s The Mission.
During the 1990s, where the Coen brothers, David Lynch and Mike Leigh were honoured, Cannes became even bigger. More Hollywood stars turned up, regarding it as a giant publicity opportunity; Madonna was highly visible in her Gaultier conical corsets, as were the egos of various artistes. Lars Van Trier called president of the jury Roman Polanski a “midget” when the director failed to get the prize he wanted, and Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, complained about the festival’s “elitism and its prediliction for dull, irrelevant films”.
Into the new century the festival continued to innovate with its Short Film Corner and Producer’s Network, and Hollywood continued to swarm with mainstream Star Wars and Indiana Jones blockbusters. Sending up the Eurotrash element now intrinsic to Cannes, Sacha Baron Cohen posed as Borat in a lime green mankini. Politics remained at the forefront in 2004 when a documentary won the main prize for the first time — Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.
This year, the mainstream Hollywood offerings include the latest in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which holds little artistic merit but is always good fun and easy on the eye with Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz starring. Overall the festival will involve 10,000 participants — all buying, selling, and posing — which makes Cannes, while not as loud as the Oscars, the most important on the film calendar. It is the festival which is genuinely diverse, and that pulls no punches. Long may there be booing as well as clapping.