Festival History
Cannes Film Festival
feature by Gregory Avery, 5 May 2000

For several weeks, I kept checking my mailbox to see if my invitation to sit on the jury for the 53rd Cannes Film Festival had arrived, yet. Alas! it failed to materialize. But I still figured that, with Luc Besson serving as jury president this year, anything could happen. And may still.

Yes, strange as it may seem, those inscrutable, hermetic, and just plain odd creatures known as "film critics" have actually been known to sit alongside real live actors, directors, and even producers on the jury for the event that has become described as le plus belle festival du monde. (Alexander Walker and Charles Champlin did it. Even Pauline Kael did it.)

And there have been Averys in Cannes, before. In 1962, my father, a U.S. Naval officer, was in town while the film festival was being held, and took a snapshot that happened to include a portion of the hind section of Harold Lloyd, the famous screen comedian who was in town to show a compilation of clips from his films (Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy) and to receive an official "homage" from the Festival organizers. Mr. Lloyd was allegedly nonplussed over being caught on-film in such a less-than-flattering position, and the photo that my dad took thereby entered our family mythos as the "famous" photograph of "Harold Lloyd's back side."

This year, the fifty-third Festival is to be held from May 10 - 21, and will include the main Official Programme, which will screen nightly in the Grand Salle of the Palais du Festival and compete for jury prizes; the three non-competing "sidebar" programs (Un Certain Regard, the Directors Fortnight, and the International Critics Week, all independently organized under the Festival's general aegis); and the millions of feet of film unreeling in the Marché (Market) section. There will be two official homages, one to Robert Bresson, and another to Luis Buñuel, who will have a new auditorium, the Salle Luis Buñuel, inaugurated in the Palais in his honor. Following last year's retrospective on Le Film d'Amour, a thirty-three film program on Le Cinéma Rêve le Futur (Cinema Dreams of the Future) will show everything from Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon to The War of the Worlds, Plan Nine from Outer Space (you read that right), Blade Runner, Brazil, Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, and the anime Ghost in the Shell. French actor Philippe Noiret will receive a special Festival trophy for career achievement; and the film director Otar Iosseliani, who was born in the Russian province of Georgia and has worked as a filmmaker in France, will not only preside over the jury for the Camera d'Or, awarded to the best first feature film shown in any of the Festival's programs, but will be honored with a special screening of his 1962 film April, which, like Renoir's A Day in the Country, exists only in a partially-completed form.

This will be the last year that the Official Programme will be assembled and presented by Gilles Jacob, who has served as the Cannes Festival director since 1978, and has had much to do with streamlining and improving the event. Instead of waiting for countries to submit films to be shown at the event, Jacob and his staff search out and view films being made around the world -- a process that sometimes begins directly after the close of the last festival, and continues on up to the beginning of the next one -- and will extend invitations to participate. Filmmakers themselves could also submit films directly to the Festival Organization's attention (which was how Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape got in to the 1989 Festival). Ecran Noir has reported that, for this year's event, 1,397 films were seen in order to select the twenty-three feature films, from fifteen countries, that comprise the final program. And it is Jacob who receives praise for a brilliantly composed program, or receives flak for a program that turns out to be disappointing, so a Festival director is required not only to be an astute judge of film but also skilled in politesse and diplomacy, as well. (For the record, those who preceded Jacob in this post were Maurice Bessy, 1973 - 78; Robert Favre le Bret, 1952 - 72; and Philippe Erlanger, 1946 - 51.)

Sean Penn, currently in the process of working on his third directoral effort, has been invited to show his film The Indian Runner at the fifty-third Festival. When it debuted in Cannes in 1991, an ABC-TV news reporter -- who also took the opportunity to make some flippant jokes at Penn's unknowing expense -- took one look around and asked, with all the brouhaha involved, why even have a Cannes Film Festival? The event has taken on something of a huge, lumbering life of its own, like the mythical Gargantua roused from his slumber and looking for sustenance to devour.

It is crowded, noisy, and expensive. (twenty-five U.S. dollars for a glass of mineral water, or so I have been told.) A Planet Hollywood franchise was opened during the fiftieth Festival, in 1997, punishing the surrounding arrondisement with loud music until all hours of the morning (whether it'll be thumping this year, given the franchise's serious problems, is another question). People complained about the lack of glamour, style, and true star power when Liv Tyler could be seen glowering from every billboard in sight when Stealing Beauty was showing at the 1996 Festival.

Yet, if you have to ask why have a Cannes Film Festival at all, then you should probably start following the World Wrestling Federation. Even people who hate how hectic the event has become would, if you asked them, never dream of missing it. In 1996 alone, festivalgoers could see the premieres of Breaking the Waves, Secrets and Lies, Crash, The Eighth Day, Kansas City, Ridicule, Microcosmos, The Van, and André Téchiné's Thieves, and that was in the Official Programme, alone. In other words, it's the films, stupid.

Aside from the Academy Award (Amero-centric, I know, but true), the Palme d'Or, the Cannes Festival's prize for best film, is still the most prestigious film honor to be had. The event has managed to maintain its position in the top echelon of annual international film festivals -- including those held in Venice, Berlin, Toronto, London, Park City, Utah, and New York City -- while hundreds of other events buzz around somewhere in the ether below. It has its own colorful history, both fair and foul.

But it was not the first international film festival. That was Venice, which was started in 1932 as part of the city's annual Biennale of the arts. By the mid Thirties, though, the bestowing of prizes had begun to noticeably favor entries from Italy and Germany, countries which had by that time entered into a Fascist alliance. The top prize, in fact, was not yet known as the Leone d'Oro (the Gold Lion), but the Coppa Mussolini. In 1937, Grand Illusion, generally regarded as the best film shown at the event, was passed over for the top prize. The following year, the Coppa Mussolini for best picture was split between Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, made with the cooperation of Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, and an Italian film, Luciano Serra, Pilota, which was produced by Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce himself. The French delegation withdrew from the event in disgust, and decided that an alternate event was needed, one where any country could come and show their films, without fear or bias, under a general atmosphere of rapport. After considering several possible sites, Cannes, a beachside resort town in the South of France where F. Scott Fitzgerald set the opening chapters of his novel Tender is the Night, was decided upon.

The first Festival International du Film Mondial was set to start on September 1, 1939. The opening film, to be shown in the town's municipal casino, was to be the remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton. Films by Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier, Christian-Jaque, Rouben Mamoulian, Cecil B. De Mille and Howard Hawks were to be shown. The awards jury's president du honeur was to be noneother than Louis Lumière himself, who, with his brother Auguste, began filming and publicly showing motion pictures back in 1895. And celebrities ranging from Mae West to Philippe de Rothschild could be seen strolling along the Croisette, the wide boardwalk which separated the beach from the town of Cannes itself.

The opening night film was shown, without a hitch, on September 1. On September 2, Hitler's armies invaded Poland. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, and the remainder of the Festival was canceled as people scurried about to prepare for what would be six long, hard years of war that would change the map of the world for years to come.

On the night of September 19, 1946, Grace Moore sang the Marseillaise while, behind her, fireworks exploded over the nighttime harbor of Cannes. With the restoration of the French Republic following Nazi occupation, and the end of hostilities, it was time to lighten the mood a bit. The second premiere International Film Festival started with the Soviet-made documentary Berlin, showing the fall of that city to Allied forces and made by camera crews working under extremely hazardous circumstances. The showing, again at the city's municipal casino (the Palais du Festival, with its entrance located on the Croisette, would not be up and running until 1949), was plagued by projection problems and, at one point, a power outage. But Berlin, and the other films on the program, were shown from beginning to end. Over fifteen days, one could see screenings of Notorious, Gaslight, Gilda, Brief Encounter, A Matter of Life and Death, Wonder Man with Danny Kaye, French cabaret performer Noël-Noël in a very change-of-pace performance in La Pere Tranquille, Disney's Make Mine Music, Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, the Soviet film Zoya with its original music score by Dimitri Shostakovich, and The Lost Weekend. At the end, it was decided that an award for the film considered to be the most exemplary of those shown at the Festival should go to Réne Clément's account of French railway workers and the Resistance, La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails), making it essentially the first of many Best Picture/Palme d'Or recipients to come.

The idea of giving out the award in the form of a gold palm leaf was first suggested by Suzanne Lazon, a Paris jeweler, in 1954. Jean Cocteau -- who would serve twice as the Festival's president du jury, again as president du honneur, and, in 1964, would be named "honorary jury president in perpetuity" -- did a quick sketch of a palm leaf , there on the spot, and it has been this simple design which has served as the symbol for the award trophy, and for the Festival itself, to this day.

In 1953, Edward G. Robinson, Italian actress and screenwriter Titina de Filippo, and Belgium screenwriter Charles Spaak cracked the all-French festival jury lineup (which lasted from 1949 to 1952). Olivia de Havilland became the first female président du jury in 1965, followed the next year by Sophia Loren, who managed to chair the jury while opening an exhibition of her photography in New York, and completing her scenes for Chaplin's new film A Countess from Hong Kong in the U.K. (Loren would fly in to Nice, be chauffeured by car to Cannes, and catch up on seeing all the competition films entered in a screening room, on into the night, if necessary. And she saw all the films before the jury voting commenced.) To date, there has not been either a black, or Russian, jury president, a situation that I'm sure Sidney Poitier or Nikita Mikhalkov could easily remedy.

The decision of who-gets-what at the end of the Festival is decided upon by the 10-member jury on the last weekend of the event, when they are sequestered in a villa, located in the hills above Cannes, to talk, argue, and finally vote on the choices. When two films tie for the Palme, the award may be given ex aequo (with equal honors). Starting in 1978, the Camera d'Or award was instituted, voted upon by a separate jury, for the best first feature film showing in any of the Festival's programs, including the Official Selections. (Past recipients include Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Mira Nair.) Short films have also been honored since the beginning of the Festival, and many more are bestowed by independent groups ranging from FIRPRESCI, the international film critics society (which hands out a huge jeroboam of Piper-Heidseck champagne to be director of the winning film), to the Cheminots Cinephiles, a group of national railway workers and film enthusiasts which dates from the time when newsreel cinemas could be found in French railway stations all over the country.

At the 1963 Festival, the writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol's statement Le cinema est mort, vive la television was treated as if it were a shot heard 'round the world. When you hold an event that attracts international media coverage, not to mention one that gathers different people from different countries all into one spot for an extended period of time, something's occasionally got to give. While the Festival was not held, for monetary reasons, in 1948 and 1950 (in 1947, the acting French Minister of Culture, François Mitterand, took one look at all the hoopla, which was part government-financed, and said, "Such a festival cannot take place every year."), it was shut down, for the first and so far only time, during the events of 1968, when millions of French workers went collectively out on strike in response to French President Charles de Gaulle's policies and actions, particularly those of riot police called in to disperse student protestors at the Sorbonne. A delegation which included François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard arrived on the eighth day of the Festival and began holding open discussions, on whether the Festival should continue or not that year, in the Palais de Festival, discussions that drew so many people that the building became effectively "occupied" for a full day and night. Members of the awards juries voluntarily resigned, and filmmakers withdrew their films from being shown. (The sole holdouts: the Soviets, who were late getting to the Festival because transportation was slowing to a crawl all over France.) Finally, Robert Favre le Bret announced that events made it impossible to continue to hold the remainder of the Festival. The event closed with a planned tribute to Henri Langlois, who had been reinstated, after joint protests from the French and international film community, to his position as head of the Cinémathèque Française, after French Culture Minister Andre Malraux dismissed him as head of an organization which Langlois himself had created.

There were other occurrences, almost equally contentious -- the time when Joseph Strick sat down at the evening screening of his film of James Joyce's Ulysses and discovered that, without his prior knowledge or consent, some of the French subtitles had been blacked-out (censored) on the print being shown, causing Strick to immediately yank the film from the event; Andy Warhol being invited by Festival officials to bring his three-hour film The Chelsea Girls to Cannes, saying that a place, somehow, somewhere, would be found to show it, then being told that no place could be found after all and causing Warhol to pack his film and his bags and head back home; Michael Wadleigh handing out black armbands to audience members entering a screening of Woodstock, in 1970, after news about the Kent State shootings had reached France. But nothing comes close to the free-for-all that was the 1956 Festival, the height of which occurred when the showing of Alain Resnais' great documentary regarding the concentration camps, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), was stopped, after it had already been set-up to project, by Festival officials who entered the projection booth moments before it was to be shown, fearful that it could offend the sensibilities of German delegates attending the festival. One feature film on the program, about East German refugees, had already been forced to withdraw; another, about an obscure border conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union, would also be taken out of the Festival, with people angrily packing bags, issuing dismayed statements, and then stomping back home. Luis Buñuel's Cela s'Appelle l'Aurore (That is the Dawn) had earlier been accepted, then rejected by the Festival as being, in their words, "too anarchic" -- so the filmmakers took it right around the corner and showed it at a private cinema, on the rue d'Antibes, a street which runs parallel to the Croisette, during the Festival, where it would attract an audience of international attendees who were, sometimes, looking for something a little more better than what was showing at the Palais and would thus be in need of something a little more "anarchic." (This practice would continue on into the 1970s, when the Festival expanded to accommodate more films, whether of an "anarchic" nature or not.)

The final awards ceremony has provided, over the years, anecdotes of legendary proportions. In the beginning, prizewinners received pieces of hand-crafted crystal, even original artworks. Currently, the Palme d'Or is the only trophy given out, with everyone else receiving award scrolls. Lars von Trier was so disgusted at receiving two minor prizes for his film Zentropa, in 1992, that he threw them in the trash outside the Palais. They were quickly retrieved by his producer, which is more than can be said for Robert Altman. At Cannes, it is part of the procedure for prizewinners to be photographed on-stage after receiving their awards. The story goes that when Altman received the Palme for M*A*S*H, at the 1970 Festival, his producer, Ingo Preminger, walked up to him on-stage and told him that the photographers wanted to get a picture of Altman handing the Palme d'Or to Preminger. (Unlike the Oscars, the Palme is given to the director, not the producer, of the winning film.) Altman obliged, after which Preminger quickly retreated, so Altman believes, through a side door into a waiting car that whisked him away to the airport with Altman's Palme d'Or, which he claims not to have seen since.  

With some exceptions, the list of films named as Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival has held up pretty well. (The only problem being that some of them -- Two Cents Worth of Hope, The Given Word, Chronicle of the Burning Years -- have been extremely difficult to see in the U.S.) It is still a little hard to believe that Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Smiles of the Summer Night were both passed over for receiving the top honor during the years when they were shown in-competition. This was remedied during the 50th Festival, when members of the international film community voted for Bergman to receive a special Palme des Palmes award for the director who has never received a Best Picture award at Cannes.

Each year, as the men and women in evening dress ascend the red-carpeted "mere rouge" leading up the steps to the Palais, there is always the anticipation of being on the brink of what may turn out to be a rare cinematic experience. Or maybe not. Three years ago, Mathieu Kassowitz, the young director who had been widely lauded and won the Best Director award at the Festival in 1995 for his film La Haine (Hate), found himself facing an openly hostile reception to his film on modern violence, Assassin(s) (he then had to go through the whole experience again when the film premiered in Paris a few weeks later). And, last year, Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women was apparently so out-there that jurist Holly Hunter was reported to have been visibly shaken while on her way out of the screening. So what new masterpieces, or new outrages, can be expected to be culled from the world film community this year?




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