Cannes for Beginners

By Nick Dawson | May 21, 2010
The Dardenne brothers The Dardenne brothers are the most recent repeat Palme D’Or winners

As part of Movie City Cannes, Nick Dawson provides a little historical context for the world’s most famous and glitziest film festival.

The Cannes Film Festival is synonymous with the glamour of the film industry. It takes place every May in the glorious sunshine and lavish luxury of the French Riviera and is a gathering place for the movie world’s elite as the most respected directors and most famous stars present their new films to intense hype and excitement. (This year, Focus Features International attended with Mike Leigh’s highly lauded competition title Another Year, plus a market slate including Joe Wright’s Hanna and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre.)Cannes is the Rolls Royce of film festivals, the one that everyone wants their movie to play at—the gold standard by which all other film fests must be judged. Indeed, to be on the Croisette in May and see the mad, overwhelming circus that is the Cannes Film Festival, one would never guess the true origins of the event.

A Political Beginning

In the beginning—unbelievable as it seems now—the Cannes Film Festival was a political event. In the late 1930s, the film community in France observed how the fascist governments of Germany and Italy had become involved in the selection process of the Venice Film Festival, which was at the time by far the most high profile and respected celebration of global cinema at that time. (The incident that caused most was when the critically favored French director Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion was snubbed at the 1938 Venice Film Festival in favor of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-funded Olympia, which instead won the tellingly titled Mussolini Cup.) Thus, an idea was hatched to set up an event that would provide an antidote or counterbalance to the tarnished Venice fest. So, with the backing of Britain and the U.S. and one of the godfathers of cinema, Louis Lumière installed as the event’s president, the Festival International de Cannes was set to start on September 20, 1939. 

On September 1, however, Germany invaded Poland and the dawn of World War II caused all plans for the festival to be scrapped. Seven years later, though, Cannes’ first edition got under way proper, again in September. That year, the Venice Film Festival – which also occupied a late summer, early fall timeslot – was on hiatus (as it had been since 1942), but returned the next year, worsening tensions between France and Italy and their landmark film events. In 1952, with French-Italian relations growing more relaxed as memories of WWII grew fainter, Cannes moved to its now traditional slot in May, creating sufficient breathing space between the two meaning that the festival could be an event that would not compete with Venice, but rather complement it.

Robert Mitchum and Simone Silva make headlines in 1954

Robert Mitchum and
Simone Silva make
headlines in 1954

Fun in the Sun

Cannes’ status as a French Riviera town has always had an impact on the festival; the collision of hot weather, sandy beaches and some of the most beautiful actresses in the world naturally attracted press photographers from all over the planet. And this, in turn, also gave ambitious, striking young women the perfect opportunity to make a play for fame. France was anyway somewhat more permissive sexually, so it was more acceptable for a starlet to parade in front of a sea of shutterbugs on the beach below the Croisette, and if her bikini top fell off, then it was not a catastrophe. 

The most legendary of these “accidents” happened in 1954 when busty British actress Simone Silva, who had just been named “Miss Festival,” was being photographed on the shore with Robert Mitchum. The snappers optimistically called for Silva to remove her top, and she obliged, much to the obvious delight of Mitchum and the assembled press corps. Her actions caused an unparalleled melee in which cameras were smashed, one photographer broke his arm and another his leg. Silva, despite being the official face of the festival, was asked to leave town, while the pictures of Mitchum with the nude actress were seen around the world and caused such a fuss in Hollywood that there was talk of all American movies being withheld from future festivals. (Fortunately, they didn’t or else Delbert Mann’s Marty would not have won the Palme D’Or the following year!)

Subsequently, numerous actresses frolicked for the paparazzi, but showed a restraint that came from knowing of Silva’s story. Brigitte Bardot wandered the beach in 1956 as photographers swarmed, but arguably earned more headlines when she visited Picasso’s nearby studio to be painted by the legendary artist and lover of women. Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida also wowed on the visits, but the Cannes crowd had a thing for blondes, with Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield (who danced in the fountains on her visit in 1964) turning more heads than most.

A poster for the canceled 1939 festival

A poster for the canceled
1939 festival

Eyes on the Prize

Though international beauties and precocious ingénues have always provided distractions at Cannes, the festival does its best to keep the focus on what everyone is really there to see: great movies.

In the early years of the festival, the most favored films were awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, a prize that was somewhat devalued by the number of movies that received it. (In 1946, for example, a stunning 11 films shared the award, while there were dual winners in 1951 and 1952.) The prize all cinephiles associate with Cannes is, of course, the Palme D’Or (or Golden Palm), which was introduced in 1955 and which had been designed by the great French director and poet Jean Cocteau, a champion of the festival. (Cocteau once said of Cannes, “The Festival is 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.”)

Though the Palme D’Or is now the iconic symbol of the festival, its initial popularity was somewhat short-lived as, rather oddly, in 1964, the Cannes brass decided to once again give out the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film to its top film. Even more embarrassingly, they then flip-flopped for a third time in 1975, when it was decided that the Palme D’Or was, in fact, the award to go with.

Cannes not only became the most prestigious and high profile place to global filmmakers to debut their new movies, but gained significant cachet for the films it both programmed and recognized with its top prize. In the 1950s, there was a certain tendency to acknowledge local favorites with three French films, ranging from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear to the quickly forgotten Jacques Cousteau underwater doc The Silent World, winning the fest’s main honors. In the 60s, bold, adventurous movies dominated, whether they were products of the French New Wave (Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman), British counterculture flicks (Richard Lester’s The Knackand How to Get It and Lindsay Anderson’s if….) or stylish, engrossing Italian pictures (Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup).

The 70s at Cannes were dominated by the New Hollywood directors, with the Palme D’Or (or its equivalent) being won by Robert Altman for MASH, Jerry Schatzberg for the underrated Scarecrow and Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver, while Francis Ford Coppolabecame the first man to win big twice at the festival, with his films The Conversation and Apocalypse Now coming out on top in 1974 and 1979 respectively. (There have since been four more repeat winners at Cannes: Shohei Imamura won for The Ballad of Narayama in 1983 and The Eel in 1997, Emir Kusturica scored with When Father Was Away on Business in 1985 and Underground in 1995, Bille August won in quick succession with Pelle the Conqueror in 1988 and Best Intentions in 1992, and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne were the most recent double winners for Rosetta in 1999 and L’Enfant in 2005.) The emergence of the American independent scene was also signaled at Cannes when Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme in 1989, and was quickly followed by Palme victories for David Lynch’s Wild At Heart in 1990, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink in 1991 and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994.

An Ever-Growing Festival

However, the Cannes Film Festival is not just about the Palme D’Or, or even the main competition section, for that matter. Since it became a force in the festival world during the 1950s, Cannes has been regularly expanding and diversifying. In 1959, the Marché du Film became an official part of the festival, and has grown to become arguably the biggest film market in the world. Films big and small, good and bad, completed and still in development, are touted at the Marché, meaning that each May many more filmmakers make the pilgrimage to Cannes looking to gain traction for their movie than attend the festival with a movie that has actually been accepted by the festival. Nevertheless, Cannes has regularly been creating new sections so that they can invite more movies each year.

The International Critics' Week was introduced in 1962, a secondary competition section designed to showcase the work of first- and second-time filmmakers, and which over the years has given a high-profile start to everyone from Bernardo Bertolucci to François Ozon. In 1969, in response to the curtailed 1968 edition of the festival, which had been dominated by politics and politicized filmmakers (all of which you can read much more about here), the Directors’ Fortnight strand was created in order to provide an apolitical context for movies. The ethos of the Quinzaine des Realizateurs (as the French call it) was summed up in the ironically rather political statement by helmer Pierre Kast, “All films are born free and equal: we must help them to remain so.”

In 1978, Gilles Jacob, the incoming General Delegate at the festival, added both an additional sidebar and a new filmmaking prize. Un Certain Regard – which loosely translates as “a certain look” – is a parallel strand of the official competition which champions alternative cinema, while the Camera D’Or ties in with the work of the International Critics’ Week by recognizing the best film by a debut director. In the latter years of his 30-year stint as General Delegate, Jacob also brought into existence the Cinéfondation, the Residence and the Atelier, all of which spotlight the work of or provide funding for up-and-coming directors.

And, of course, the Cannes Film Festival is ever looking forward. In his speech announcing the 2009 Cannes program, Jacob closed by saying the following: “the Festival de Cannes has decided to continue helping independent creators as best it can. …We make no distinction between their films. They are all there, somewhere, in the atmosphere that surrounds us all. They are all there and available, chemically, digitally, electronically, in binary, in VOD, virtually, we can feel them, they surround us. They are looking out for us. Let’s not abandon them.”

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