Shrouded in secrecy, the process for picking the winners is a mix of glamour and intrigue.
CANNES — You wake up early in Cannes, even if you always go to bed late. At 7:45 a.m., the first journalists rush to the red carpet to get the best spots around the Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière. At 8:25 a.m., a female voice warns — first in French, then in English — "Mesdames et Messieurs, veuillez regagner vos places, la séance va bientôt commencer. Ladies and gentlemen, the screening is about to begin." At 8:30 a.m. sharp, the room and its 2,309 seats are plunged into darkness for the opening credits. On the giant screen, the camera goes up a flight of underwater steps as a small shoal of fish swim by. The soundtrack is "Aquarium", from Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnaval des Animaux.
That's usually when you can notice a discrete movement inside the projection room, behind the orchestra, under the balcony. The members of the jury are coming out of an adjoining lounge where they had breakfast while chatting about the events of the previous day. They will slip out just as discretely as they came in, during the closing credits, either to leave the Palais des Festivals or to take a 30-minute break until the second movie starts.
Some, though few, accept to chat in the hallway with journalists. But never about the movie: That's against the rules, of course. The members of the jury who don't feel like downing another film straight away can always wait until the prime time 7:30 p.m. screening, the one with the climb of the steps on the red carpet.
For members of the jury, the Cannes Film Festival begins with a telephone call. The invitation to preside on the jury arrives from the festival's director — for many years, that was Gilles Jacob; now it's Thierry Frémaux.
By the time they actually arrive in Cannes, the members of the jury are divided up and hosted in different palatial hotels on the Promenade de la Croisette. In 1995, when Emir Kusturica won his second Palme d'Or with Underground, producer Michèle Ray-Gavras was staying in a suite at the Carlton. "We're not used to this luxury," she says. "We get presents. We can have someone dress us, put our makeup on, do our hair. It was great."
For 12 days, that deluxe hotel room becomes a strategic retreat. "I would take notes during the screenings, because the task demanded of us is so great that I was afraid I'd miss something," says French writer and director Philippe Labro, a member of the 2001 jury that crowned Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room with the Palme d'Or for best film. "It gets to a point where you're so overflowing with images that you lose your judgment. So you have to return to your hotel room, reexamine everything and think. Your room becomes your office."
On the first day, the festival director gathers his flock, most of whom have never met each other, for introductions. There are, indeed, several keys to picking an independent jury. "I was careful to select people from all occupations, all generations and all countries, without ever over-representing France," explains Gilles Jacob. "I've also demanded that gender parity be respected. And I always made sure that the jury president doesn't try and interfere with the choices for the rest of the jury members. That being said, I would make discrete inquiries not to pick somebody he hated."
Giving your personal opinion about a movie is strictly forbidden, even in private.
For years, this initial contact would take place in suite 429 at the Carlton. It now takes places in the Palme d'Or lounge, on the top floor of the Palais des Festivals. The gathering is also an opportunity to give out some advice. "I would hammer home that the Palme d'Or should go to a movie with commercial potential, whereas the Grand Prix was for a more highbrow, original film," Jacob says. This last recommendation wasn't always followed to the letter. Certainly not by Tim Burton when he honored Apichatpong Weerasetakhul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. "I love Tim, but he wanted to award a type of cinema he can't make."
The juries also get reminded of their duty of confidentiality. Giving your personal opinion about a movie is strictly forbidden, even in private. But most importantly: Avoid the journalists, the producers, and distributors, who would all like a little scoop. French producer Michèle Rey-Gavras was duly warned. "I'd been told: You're going to be harassed. On the contrary, it was as if I had something contagious. People I knew very well would cross the street so they wouldn't have to shake my hand and be accused of favoritism."
Thierry Frémaux, Gilles Jacob and Arte TV channel president Véronique Cayla at Cannes in 2009 — Photo: Plyd/GFDL
Last piece of advice: Don't read the newspapers, which try to put pressure, sometimes in a menacing fashion. And most importantly, don't pay any attention to what the industry critics are writing, be they from Le Film français, Screen, Variety or The Hollywood Reporter.
In 2016, critics had been almost unanimous in their praise of Maren Ade's film Toni Erdmann. Yet the Parme d'Or didn't wind up with the German director, though Thierry Frémaux invited her to be part of the jury this year as a kind of consolation.
When the marathon begins, on the Thursday morning of the first week, the jury president has a more or less defined mode of functioning. Jeanne Moreau preferred her jury to see the movies together in the mornings, except for French movies. She thought the jury had to give a special honor to French cinema by climbing the famous steps before the evening screening. Scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a jury member in 1981 under the presidency of director Jacques Deray, remembers it all as very serious work. "We would gather every other day for short meetings during which we would eliminate films by consensus. Deray was very taciturn. No way of knowing what he was thinking. He'd mumble "Yeah" or "We'll see." He was a great cinema expert."
Sophia Loren went as far as breaking the rules. In 1966, the Italian beauty simply abandoned Cannes and her presidency for two days, for the shooting of Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong in London. After she returned, she had to "catch up" at night on the films she'd missed, after attending the two daily screenings.
In Cannes, you have to pay attention until the very last day. On several occasions, the Palme d'Or was awarded to a movie screened on the last day. Sometimes, it's a relief. Before watching the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, Roman Polanski had been mumbling about the fact that none of the movies he'd seen were worthy of a Palme d'Or.
I was prepared to yield as long as Gérard Depardieu would win Best Actor.
In the last days, each member of the jury prepares for the final confrontation, which takes places at a different villa every year, to maintain secrecy. They go through their notes, they make a list of the fellow members who already have clearly expressed an opinion for or against a movie. And they draw up a strategy.
When she arrived at the villa Domergue in 1987, critic Danièle Heymann was set to bargain. "I'd told myself: That, I'll drop ; that, I'll never drop ; if I drop this, I want that ... " She says she knew that two other French members of the jury — Gérald Calderon and Yves Montand — hated her preferred choice, Maurice Pialat's Under the Sun of Satan. "I was prepared to yield as long as Gérard Depardieu would win Best Actor," she recalled. "So, we sat down and then, silence. Nobody would open their mouths. Montand wouldn't say a word. To lighten the mood, I suggested we each write down our favorite movie on a piece of paper." Heymann counted, and she was pleasantly surprised to see Pialat had gotten five votes. "At that moment, director Elem Klimov launched into a rant in Russian against Nikita Mikhalkov, saying he's a renegade, a scumbag."
What a mood. Mikhalkov's Dark Eyes was out and, an hour later, Pialat got the Palme d'Or — and when accepting his prize in front of a booing audience, famously retorted: "If you don't like me, I can tell you I don't like you either!"
This year, the members of the jury will gather around an oval table as early as nine on the last Sunday, their phones turned off. The festival director will remind them of the rules: no joint prize if possible and not more than one prize per movie. More importantly, don't take too long to decide, so as to keep to the schedule and maintain all arrangements.
The former director of the festival, Gilles Jacob, has seen all possible scenarios play out, but he admits Roman Polanski may have surprised him the most when he led the jury in 1991. "He had secretly gathered his jury the previous day, without warning me. And he came with his prize list ready on a small piece of paper." And the winner was ... Barton Fink. Good choice ...