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The scandalous history of the Cannes Film Festival

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

It’s that time of year again, when the attention of the world turns to the south of France for the ten-day jamboree of sin and cinema that is the Cannes Film Festival. James Oliver casts a reflective eye over Cannes past—the history, the passion and, of course, the scandals that have made it such an unmissable event...

First Time Unlucky

We’ve all been there: you spend ages planning an event, sorting out a venue and herding the guests, then something happens to stick a spanner in the work, like a genocidal dictator rolling his tanks into Poland.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) 

Such was the fate of the first Cannes Film Festival, which had the bad luck to start on September 1, 1939, the very day Hitler decided to begin his blitzkrieg. It was decided to abandon the festival after only one film had been shown (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and try again when things had calmed down a bit.

As it happened, that wasn’t until 1946.



Silva Linings

Cannes’ proximity to the beach means there’s never been a short supply of bathing beauties to catch the eye; Brigitte Bardot, for instance, made the front pages in 1953 by parading around on the plage in a bikini.

The most famous semi-naked starlet, though, was Franco-Egyptian actress Simone Silva who, in 1954, whipped her top off and clasped an unprepared Robert Mitchum to her naked bosom. She achieved a brief notoriety, but she wasn’t able to parlay this into a sustained career and she died of a stroke only three years later at the horrifically young age of 29: a cautionary tale for those who would seek fame by flashing their bits.



Roll Up! Roll Up!

As Simon Silva recognised, Cannes is a place for flaunting it. As such, it's the ideal arena for those folk with a film to flog.

The visitor to Cannes must thus expect to be bombarded with publicity stunts and promotion. Nor is this a recent phenomenon: the producers of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the only film shown in 1939, remember) erected a giant cardboard cathedral on the beach, setting the tone for what followed.

Remember the giant inflatable Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1993 (for The Last Action Hero)...?

Or Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s choreographed falling out over Universal Soldier...?

Or Sacha Baron Cohen’s "mankini"?

Or Jerry Seinfeld’s zip wire?

No doubt publicists have been busy cooking up ways to grab the column inches. And no doubt most of their publicity stunts will prove more ingenious and entertaining than the movies they hawk.



Smash the system! (or something)

In 1958, a young man called Francois Truffaut was the only French film critic not invited to the festival. He was no more popular with the organisers ten years on.

That was the year that the critic-turned-filmmaker decided, with the help of Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lelouche, to close down the festival in solidarity with the students who were then being all student-y on the streets of Paris. Right on!

But this was no mere petulant outburst: it changed the festival. The organisers responded by introducing new strands and less conservative programming in the years that followed, ensuring Cannes remained at the cutting edge. Which was surely a great comfort to those left out of pocket by the abrupt cancellation in 1968.




Mind, Cannes has always been a political festival: it was even conceived as a democratic alternative to its (Fascist enabled) Venice counterpart.

It has always championed dissident auteurs such as Andrei Tarkovsky (seldom in good odour with the Soviet authorities) or Zhangke Jia (the Chinese government was none too happy with his film A Touch of Sin) or Yilmaz Güney (whose film Yol was given a prize when he was a political prisoner in Turkey).

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Nor has it been afraid to tweak the nose of other authorities either, managing to irritate the Vatican two years on the trot when Fellini’s satire of modern decadence La Dolce Vita and Bunuel’s rather more scabrous Viridiana took home the top prize.

The ongoing patronage of Ken Loach (who took the Palme d’Or only last year for I, Daniel Blake), shows Cannes continues to embrace political radicalism, even if it does insist on a strict dress code while doing so.



Lars Loses It

Not every political view is tolerated, however, as Lars Von Trier found to his cost when promoting his then-new film Melancholia in 2011. He was already famous for his—er—"combative" appearances at the festival—claiming to be "the best director in the world" in 2009 was one of his less spectacular offerings: he’d previously referred to Roman Polanski as "the dwarf" (to his face, no less).

So he probably thought he could get away with describing himself as "a Nazi" who "sympathised with Hitler". Silly Lars! Didn’t he know the festival were still mad at the Führer for making them abandon their debut outing? Von Trier has, accordingly, been banned from the festival ever since.



Audience Participation

Maybe it’s the frenzied tumult, maybe it’s the altitude or maybe it’s just all the Rosé that the attendees put away. Whatever the reason, passions run high at Cannes. Audiences are seldom reticent about making their opinion known about a film, especially when they hate it.

Booing is one of the things that sets Cannes apart from other festivals. There’s no healthy appreciation of talent or admiration for the creative process. Nope, if the audience thinks your movie sucks, you’ll know about it.

The thing is, you’ll be in good company. Many films now regarded as timeless classics were greeted with thunderous protests at their first outing. L'Avventura? Boooo! Taxi Driver? Boooo! Robert Bresson’s L’Argent? Boooo! Wild at Heart? Boooooooo! (extra ‘ooo’s there because they really hated it).

Taxi Driver (1976)

How should one respond? Surely the best response is that of director Maurice Pialat. His film Sous le soleil du Satan was soundly booed, so he basically called ‘em out and gave them the metaphorical finger. Boooo!



Dog’s Dinners

Mind you, sometimes posterity doesn’t rescue the films booed at Cannes. The selection process for Cannes is one of life’s great mysteries, with many utterly mediocre movies being given the full bells and whistles gala treatment.

One popular conspiracy theory is that Sean Penn has incriminating photographs of the selection committee; how else did things like Fair Game or The Last Face get picked? (The latter was met by particularly lusty booing).

Gus Van Sant would also seem to have some compromising material: Restless and Sea of Trees were two of the worst reviewed films ever to screen at the festival. It’s not as if they got in just because Van Sant was a Palme d’Or winner; Mike Leigh was too (for Secrets and Lies) and Vera Drake still got rejected (and won top prize at Venice instead).

Then again, Vera Drake didn’t have the sort of glamorous young stars that might help put the festival on the front pages. Yes, Cannes is in the business of championing great movies—but it knows how to play the publicity game too.



Like Something out of a Movie

Perhaps the greatest paradox of Cannes is that it should so often champion films about the wretched of the earth but those films are watched by people dripping with bling. For high-end jewellers, Cannes is the best shopfront there is and so they’re happy to lend their fabulously expensive wares to anyone promenading up and down the red carpet.

It is, therefore, an excellent hunting ground for thieves and in 2013, one of them hit the big time: nearly a million Euros worth of gems intended to decorate festival guests were lifted from a hotel suite.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

This being a film festival, people were quick to draw cinematic comparisons, particularly with Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief which concerned a cat burglar at work in Cannes. And to be honest, if you were going to lose nearly a million Euros of property and see your insurance premiums hiked, quite apart from the emotional toll such a theft must occasion, you’d want the criminal to know his movie history, wouldn’t you?



Ladies’ Night

In recent years, unkind allegations have been made about the Cannes film festival, to wit that it is not exactly female friendly. For instance, a couple of years ago, lady guests were forbidden from walking the red carpet unless they were properly attired, i.e., in high heels.

And this year, there were howls of anguish when it was noted that the official poster had doctored an image of Claudia Cardinale flashing her thighs to make her conform to more modern standard of beauty. (Although surely the very idea that Claudia Cardinale in her prime needs "improving" should be anathema to the average red-blooded male. Ahem.)

More seriously, Cannes has historically displayed a very partial approach to female filmmakers, who have often found it hard to get films accepted at the festival. Only one woman has won the Palme d’Or so far (Jane Campion) and some very good female directors have been snubbed outright: we can’t have them taking a slot that might otherwise be taken by a mediocre Sean Penn movie now, can we?

While it’s sad that a festival that’s otherwise so politically progressive should be so ham-fisted on this issue, things are changing; this year sees a record number of films by female directors. Assuming that they’ve been selected on merit—and Sean Penn doesn’t seem to be involved with any of them—it bodes well for a vintage year.

Here’s hoping.



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