Lights, camera, scandal: it must be time for Cannes
As the film festival starts, Paul Whitington takes a look at Cannes’ history
The biggest, brashest and most important film festival in the world gets under way today, as tens of thousands of stars, filmmakers, critics, journalists and sundry hangers-on converge on the idyllic coastal city of Cannes for an 11-day orgy of cinematic madness.
In the finest Cannes tradition, there'll be walkouts, booing, public fallings out by the jury and, of course, lots of publicity stunts involving sun, sand and scantily clad women. The Cannes Film Festival is a unique event, silly and serious and endearingly tacky all at once.
It has a long tradition of championing esoteric arthouse films, but also happily allows Hollywood to use the festival as a promotional vehicle for its 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 perhaps the world's most important commercial film sale.
Cannes is the most prestigious annual film gathering outside the Academy Awards. Launched in 1939 but postponed by World War II, the Cannes Festival got off to a shaky start in 1946 and only managed to establish itself as a major event in the international film calendar in the 1950s after persuading Hollywood that the south of France in early summer was a place worth visiting.
At the same time as they were piggy-backing on Hollywood's peerless glamour, the good folk at Cannes were merrily sneering at the quality of Tinseltown's output, and this deep ambivalence about American cinema has continued to this day.
Many careers have been kickstarted by a memorable appearance at the Palais des Festivals or on Cannes' short but much-photographed beach.
Brigitte Bardot was an unknown 18-year-old when she appeared on the famous sands in 1953 wearing a revolutionary new item of clothing called a bikini.
"I've never seen one of those before," remarked a clearly impressed Kirk Douglas. A star was born.
Bardot began the dubious practice of publicity stunt stripping at Cannes that has long since become a vulgar bore. In 1991, though, Madonna revived the tradition in style when she ripped off her cloak on the steps of the Palais to reveal a terrifying Jean-Paul Gaultier conical bra.
Jean-Luc Godard perpetrated a stunt of a different kind in 1968 when he organised sit-ins and protests at Cannes in sympathy with striking workers and students, and eventually succeeded in closing that year's festival down.
Cannes loves melodrama, and hardly a year passes without some unfortunate entry being subjected to a mass mid-screening walkout.
Booing and hissing are common, as Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code discovered, but it's walkouts that directors most fear. Gasper Noe's 2002 film Irreversible included a notorious rape scene and sparked a mass walkout and Nicholas Winding Refn's violent 2013 film Only God Forgives also met with a sizable auditorium clearout.
Volatile French audiences have even been known to boo their own. In 1987, the Cannes mob took exception to Maurice Pialat's winning the Palme d'Or with Sous le Soleil de Satan, and gave him the bird. He responded by giving them the finger – on live TV.
It's a dull year indeed where the awarding of the Palme d'Or award doesn't end in an unseemly row.
Cannes also loves to champion the controversial.
But leave it to Lars von Trier to come up with the festival's most shocking onscreen moment. His 2009 entry, Antichrist, featured an excruciating scene where Charlotte Gainsbourg removed her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors. She subsequently won the Festival's Best Actress award.
Only at Cannes.