As the 66th edition of the world's top film festival opens in the south of France, a rare glimpse at its tumultuous origins and ever sparkling history.
CANNES – The city of Biarritz could have been Cannes. In 1938, the Venice Mostra was about to crown an American film when the jury, under German influence, suddenly changed their mind and gave the award to Leni Riefensthal’s Gods of the Stadium. This is when France decided to organize its own festival. But where? Cannes, in the south, on the French Riviera, and Biarritz, a coastal town in the southwest, were close contestants, but in the end, Cannes was chosen.
The first edition of the festival was set to be held on September 1, 1939. Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Paul Muni, Norma Shearer and Mae West were all planning on coming over from the United States.
Back then, Cannes’ famous Croisette Boulevard, which lines the seafront, was already the place to be for movie stars. As for those taking part in the competition, France had sent directors Julien Duvivier, Jean de Baroncelli and Christian-Jaque; the Americans entered Victor Fleming’s Wizard of Oz and Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, while the Soviets chose Tractor Drivers,Lenin in 1918 and, most notably, the prophetic If War Comes Tomorrow. The war did come, and the festival was postponed to 1946.
All that is left from this initial festival “concept” is a poster that was designed by Jean-Gabriel Domergue. But from this poster alone, one can already catch a glimpse of everything that would later make the magic and paradoxes of Cannes. It features an elegant redheaded woman, wearing an open-back evening dress matching her hair color. She is applauding with her long fine hands, somewhat reminiscent of Rita Hayworth’s delicate gloves in Gilda. Next to her is a man wearing a tuxedo and carrying a monocle.
Right from the start, the sparkle and sequins were rubbing elbows with the harsh reality of the world. Out in the distance, military tanks were roaring, and grey Wehrmacht uniforms started marching on Europe.
Gilles Jacob, the festival’s president, has managed to make it the most widely broadcasted event after the Olympics – with more than a billion viewers worldwide. For him, the 1985 poster is the one that best symbolizes the Cannes spirit. It depicts a couple, dancing in a warm embrace. First in black and white, colors then start appearing, frame-by-frame, before the couple makes its exit. “Dancing a last waltz in the middle of a convulsing world. I think this is the ultimate symbol of the Cannes elegance.”
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The last barricade against Hollywood
The festival will never forget it was born on a volcano. It will keep choosing artistically challenging films, at the risk of sparking controversy. “First and foremost, Cannes is about artistic fervor,” says Veronique Cayla, a former artistic director for the festival who now presides over France’s Arte TV channel. “Today, the world of cinema has two poles: there is Hollywood, and Cannes – art house cinema vs. the Hollywood entertainment machine. I find it really moving to see a whole community of artists coming together from all over the world, without knowing each other. I loved seeing Japanese Takeshi Kitano leave his ivory tower to engage in a passionate conversation with Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, in an implausible language.”
Being shown at Cannes doesn’t guarantee a film’s success, but it can change a director’s career completely. But make no mistake: some Palmes d’Or -- the award for best film -- are complete flops (only 91,000 people bought a ticket to Bille August’s Best Intentions), while others reach three or five million viewers in the box office (MASH, Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction, The Piano).
But that is not the real point. Take Uncle Boonmee by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. On the morning of its Cannes screening, the film had no distributor, but after the festival it garnered 130,000 viewers in France. Not impressed? For Thierry Fremaux, deputy director of the festival, “There is an obvious Cannes effect. Uncle Boonmee would have maybe sold 10,000 tickets in France without Cannes. Every movie that wins the Palme d’Or attracts more viewers thanks to it. The legend that all the films winning a Palme are commercial failures is a total cliché. Art house cinema is more often art house than commercial cinema is commercial, don’t you think?”
Of all the movies that were awarded the Palme d’Or, some were really unexpected winners. In that category, Gilles Jacob recalls The Given Word, by Brazilian director Anselmo Duarte, which won the highest prize in 1962 “while Bresson, Bunuel, Antonioni and Satyajit Ray all had their films in the official selection. But I feel very proud that directors such as Soderbergh, Jane Campion, Moretti, Lars von Trier and the Dardenne brothers got to show their first films in Cannes.” To that list, he could have also added Tarantino, Scorsese, Kusturica and the Coen brothers.
My piece of advice to young journalists: never miss the “little film” shown on the last Saturday; it can sometimes turn out to be a winner. The perfect example of this is Rosetta, which won the prize in 1999, at a time when the Dardenne brothers were still completely unknown.
In 1991, the president of the jury Roman Polanski kept complaining to everyone that he had not seen any film deserving a Palme d’Or. But on Saturday, Gilles Jacob saw him coming out of the Lumière theatre with a big smile on his face: he had just watched Barton Fink by the Coen brothers, whom nobody knew at the time.
Sparkle and scandals
Cannes is a festival where all ambitions and hopes are possible – where fantasies come to life on the mythical red carpet. Cannes is where spectators can wait for hours, come rain or shine, just to catch sight of a star for a few seconds, or to get an autograph.
Gilles Jacob had the genius to understand in the 1970s that he needed to establish a balance between art house cinema and the red carpet. “It was deliberate. One boosts the other, one transcends the other. What I have learnt over the years is that Sharon Stone can complete, glorify and highlight the cinema of Manoel de Oliveira, the great Portuguese filmmaker. This enriches them, like a good Bordeaux Margaux wine perfects a Saint-Nectaire cheese, and I say this with all due respect.”
But the festival never compromises on its principles. So when Lars von Trier, who was “born” in Cannes, made some dubious remarks about Hitler, Jews and Nazis, he was immediately kicked out of the festival, and missed the opportunity of winning a second Palme d’Or. He got a knuckle tattoo like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter -- with the word “f*ck,” instead of Mitchum’s “love” and “hate.” Scandals are an integral part of Cannes. Just like the tuxedos…
After the French student protests and massive strikes of May 1968, when directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut hung onto the curtain in the main theatre to try and stop the festival, the managers of the festival had pondered whether it was a good idea to go on with the compulsory tuxedo rule for the viewings held at night. They stood firm. The Cannes dress code is no joking matter.
Burkina Faso director Idrissa Ouedraogo learnt this lesson the hard way. The winner of the 1990 special jury prize for Tilai once showed up in a traditional outfit. Although very stylish, his outfit looked more like a pair of pajamas than a tuxedo, and he was denied entrance to the cinema. He then recalled what his grandfather used to say: “Son, if you go to a place where everyone is acting crazy, just do the same, they must have a good reason.” Cannes is a place where everyone is acting crazy… but in a tuxedo.