The bad and the beautiful: welcome to Cannes
As famous for scandal as it is for great cinema, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off today. Paul Whitington reports
Published 13/05/2015 | 15:00
Around about now, the peaceful ease of the beautiful Cotes d'Azur town of Cannes is being shattered by noisy hordes of journalists, liggers, film hacks, stars and hangers on. Yes folks, the biggest, brashest and most important film festival in the world is underway once again, and will kick off this afternoon with the French film La Tête Haute, which stars Cannes veteran Catherine Deneuve.
Over the next two weeks or so, in the finest Cannes tradition, there'll be walk-outs, booing, very public fallings out on the jury and lots of embarrassing publicity stunts involving sun, sand and scantily clad women. The Cannes Film Festival is a unique and oddly contradictory event: silly and serious and endearingly tacky all at once.
It has a long tradition of championing esoteric arthouse films by directors such as Lars von Trier and Pedro Almovodar, but also happily allows Hollywood to use the festival as a promotional vehicle for some of its most vacuous summer blockbusters.
And behind the glitz, glamour and red carpet shenanigans, Cannes' annual Marche du Film sees distributors from around the world descending on the Cotes d'Azur to take part in the world's most important commercial film sale.
Cannes is the festival that has it all: it has no comparison in America or Europe, and remains far and away the most prestigious annual film gathering outside the Academy Awards. And while over the years Cannes has become famous for its scandals and bizarre publicity stunts, it was established with deadly serious motives in the dark days of 1939.
Cannes was the brainchild of far-sighted socialist Minister for Education Jean Zay, who decided he was sick of the farce of seeing once-prestigious film festivals in Germany and Italy being high-jacked by the fascists, and announced his intention to launch a major festival in France.
The towns of Vichy and Biarritz were considered before bureaucrats settled on the faded jewel of the Cotes d'Azur, Cannes. The first ever Cannes Film Festival was due to start on September 1, 1939, but on the opening morning that old spoilsport Hitler invaded Poland and the event was cancelled, indefinitely.
With the help of the newly installed Gaullist government, the Cannes festival was tentatively relaunched in 1946, and by the early 1950s had managed to establish itself as a major event in the international film calendar.
It did this mainly by persuading the great and good of Hollywood that the south of France in early summer was a place worth visiting. But at the same time as they were piggy-backing on Hollywood's glamour, the good folk at Cannes were merrily sneering at the quality of Tinseltown's output, and this deep ambivalence about America and its cinema continues to this day.
Many careers have been kick-started by a memorable appearance at the Palais des Festivals or on Cannes' short but much-photographed beach, and it was Brigitte Bardot who began the dubious tradition of publicity-stunt stripping.
She was just 18 and an unknown starlet when she appeared on the famous sands in 1953 wearing a revolutionary new item of clothing called a bikini. As the public gasped and flashbulbs greedily popped, a star was born, but that trick hasn't worked for many actresses since.
Flashing the flesh is still a great way of attracting publicity at Cannes, however, and Madonna earned many column inches in 1991 when she arrived at the festival to promote her new documentary, In Bed With Madonna. The film was terrible but everyone forgot about that when the singer ripped off her cloak on the steps of the Palais to reveal a terrifying Jean-Paul Gaultier conical bra.
Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard perpetrated a stunt of a different kind in 1968 when they organised sit-ins and protests at Cannes in sympathy with striking workers and students. Malle's nouvelle vague mob caused a panicked mass exit when they stormed the Palais, and they eventually succeeded in closing that year's festival down, though what exactly they were all protesting against remains unclear.
At Cannes, scandal is every bit as essential as glamour, and a festival that passed without some sort of uproar would be considered a major disappointment. Last year, for instance, the Cannes committee thought it would be a good idea to open the festival with Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco, a lush and rather fanciful biopic starring an ill-cast Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly.
The film was terrible, risibly bad, and there were sniggers in the auditorium during the screening. Worse still, the Grimaldi family were mortally offended by the film, which they described as "needlessly glamorised and historically inaccurate", and boycotted the Cannes red carpet as, for different reasons, did Grace of Monaco's producer, Harvey Weinstein.
A disaster, you might think, but Grace of Monaco gave everyone something to talk about. Cannes loves melodrama, and hardly a year passes without some unfortunate entry (usually an American film) being subjected to a mass mid-screening walkout.
Booing and hissing are common occurrences, as Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code discovered to their cost, but it's the walkouts that directors fear the most.
Volatile French audiences have even been known to turn on their own. In 1987 the Cannes mob for some reason took exception to Maurice Pialat winning the Palme d'Or with his weighty drama Sous le Soleil de Satan, and gave him the bird. He responded by giving them the finger - on live television.
It's a dull year indeed where the awarding of the Palme d'Or award doesn't end in an unseemly bun fight. In 1989 Steven Soderbergh became the youngest ever winner of the award with his innovative erotic drama Sex, Lies and Videotape.
He was just 26. But not everyone was pleased for him, and Spike Lee, who'd been favourite to win himself with Do the Right Thing, was so unhappy with jury president Wim Wenders that he muttered darkly, "somewhere I've a Louisville Slugger [a baseball bat] with Wim Wenders' name on it".
Film critics can also become embroiled in ugly spats at the festival. After seeing Vincent Gallo's rather ponderous road movie The Brown Bunny in 2003, esteemed American critic Roger Ebert pithily described it as "the worst film ever shown in the history of Cannes".
Later that night Gallo, not especially wittily, called Ebert "a fat pig". Ebert's response was magisterial: "One day I will be thin: Mr Gallo will still be the director of The Brown Bunny."
And then there's Lars von Trier, the gifted but volatile Danish film-maker who has turned Cannes scandals into something approaching an art form.
At one point he was the darling of the festival, but there were faintings and walkouts at the Cannes screening of his 2009 film Antichrist, which featured graphic male and female mutilation. Nice.
But Von Trier really outdid himself in 2011, when asked a question about his apparent admiration for the Nazi aesthetic.
"I understand Hitler," he told the flabbergasted Times journalist. "He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathise with him a little bit."
The attention-seeking Dane has not been invited back since.
Six films to watch out for in Cannes 2015
1 In Carol, Cate Blanchett is reunited with American independent director Todd Haynes for the first time since his controversial 2008 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. This handsome-looking period drama is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and stars Blanchett as a wealthy, married woman in 1950s New York who begins an affair with a department store girl, played by Rooney Mara. It sounds vaguely scandalous, which is bound to be a good thing at Cannes.
2 Jacques Audiard has form at the Cannes Film Festival: his 2010 masterpiece A Prophet won the Grand Prix here, and this intriguing new film should be among the favourites for this year's Palme d'Or. In Dheepan, a Sri Lankan Tamil fighter ends up in the tough suburbs of Paris and gets a job as a caretaker for apartment block. Audiard uses a largely unknown cast in an eagerly anticipated film that is partly based on an 18th-century novel by Montesquieu.
3 Paolo Sorrentino is a fascinating film-maker, and in Youth he tells the story of a revered and retired orchestral conductor who is on holiday in the Alps when he receives an official request from the Queen to perform for Prince Philip's birthday. A fine cast includes Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano. Sounds intriguing, and will hopefully be an improvement on Sorrentino's last English language film, This Must Be The Place.
4 Matthew McConaughey can do no wrong at the minute, and heads the cast of Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-nominated drama The Sea of Trees. McConaughey plays a desperate American man called Arthur Brennan who travels to the so-called 'suicide forest' at the foot of Mount Fuji to kill himself. He has just found a suitable spot when he meets a Japanese man (played by Ken Watanabe) with similar plans. They start talking, and things take a very different turn.
5 Greek film-maker Yorgos Lanthimos is another Cannes darling, and his latest film, The Lobster, promises to be as brilliantly bonkers as usual. Colin Farrell is among the guests at a hotel in a dystopian near future who must find a mate within 45 days or risk being transformed into an animal. No one who saw Lanthimos' extraordinary 2010 film Dogtooth will want to miss this film, which looks special and co-stars Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C Reilly and Lea Seydoux.
6 Back in 2011, young Australian director Justin Kurzel won honourable mentions at the festival for his shocking feature debut Showtown, and there's lots of interest in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, which is in competition this year. Michael Fassbender plays the Scottish nobleman, while Marion Cotillard is intriguingly cast as his devious wife. Given Kurzel's previous work, this could be something of a bloodbath, but looks stylishly original.