Tuesday 20 February 2018

Love, sex and death at Cannes

The most famous film festival in the world got under way this week, and as usual there's been plenty to talk about. The Festival de Cannes was founded by a politician and has always mixed high art with canny publicity stunts, and the 2011 event is no exception.

It can hardly be a coincidence, for instance, that the film chosen to open this year's festival, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, happens to star France's glamorous first lady, Carla Bruni.

Nor will the organisers be unhappy that among the films shortlisted for the Palme d'Or is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, because it guarantees that the film's star Brad Pitt and his wife Angelina Jolie will be bringing their travelling circus to Cannes.

Cannes wouldn't be Cannes without a moment of show-stopping controversy, and among the favourites to hit the headlines this year will be Italian director Nanni Moretti's Vatican-based comedy Habemus Papam, and Pedro Almodovar's thriller La Piel Que Habito, which is considered more hard-hitting than his usual output and tells the story of a plastic surgeon who tracks down the men who raped his daughter.

And let's not forget the old agent provocateur himself, Lars von Trier, who's often been the darling of the festival but arrives this year with a film called Melancholia that he describes as "a beautiful film about the end of the world". It -- and he -- are sure to shock.

Alongside the arthouse auteurs and Hollywood stars who'll grace the red carpets over the next fortnight or so, Cannes' annual Marché du Film will see distributors from around the world descending on the Côte d'Azur to take part in perhaps 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.

It's the only event that combines the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with the arthouse sensibilities of European cinema, and the festival judges still have the power to make or break careers.

Over the years Cannes has become famous for its scandals and bizarre publicity stunts, but it was established with deadly serious motives in the dark days of 1939.

That year the gifted and far-sighted socialist Minister for Education Jean Zay decided he was sick of the farce of seeing once-prestigious film festivals in Germany and Italy being nobbled by fascist interference, and announced his intention to launch a major festival in France.

The towns of Vichy and Biarritz were considered before the bureaucrats settled on the faded jewel of the Côte d'Azur, Cannes.

The first Cannes Film Festival was due to start on September 1, 1939, but on the opening morning Germany invaded Poland and the event was cancelled, indefinitely.

With the help of the newly installed Gaullist government, the festival was relaunched in 1946.

But funds were tight in postwar France, and Cannes was cancelled several times in the late 1940s due to financial constraints.

It only managed to establish itself as a major event in the international film calendar in the early 1950s, and it did this by 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.

This deep ambivalence about America and its cinema has continued 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. Brigitte Bardot was an unknown 18-year-old starlet 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 as the flashbulbs popped and a star was born.

Bardot began the dubious tradition 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 and his Nouvelle Vague gang 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.

Godard and Co caused a panicked mass exit when they stormed the Palais.

They eventually succeeded in closing that year's festival down, though what exactly they were all protesting against remains unclear.

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 The Da Vinci Code discovered to their cost, but it's the walkouts that directors most fear.

Volatile French audiences have even been known to boo their own.

In 1987 the Cannes mob for some reason 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 television.

It's a dull year indeed where the awarding of the Palme d'Or doesn't end in an unseemly bunfight.

In 2004 Michael Moore's dim-witted and pedestrian Fahrenheit 9/11 became the first documentary ever to win the prize, most likely because of its fashionable anti-Iraq War and anti-American stance.

In 1989 Steven Soderbergh became the youngest ever winner of the Palme d'Or with his innovative erotic drama Sex, Lies and Videotape. He was just 26.

Not everyone was pleased for him, however.

Spike Lee, who'd been favourite to win with Do the Right Thing, was so unhappy with jury president Wim Wenders that he said "somewhere I've a Louisville Slugger (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 called Ebert "a fat pig".

Mr Ebert's response was magisterial: "One day I will be thin: Mr Gallo will still be the director of The Brown Bunny".

Cannes loves to champion the controversial.

Heavily censored in his native Japan, Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses had them queuing around the block in Cannes at the 1976 festival.

This was despite, or possibly because of the fact that the film was laden with scenes of sexual sadism, coital strangulation and castration.

Gasper Noe's highly divisive 2002 thriller Irreversible featured a graphic and deeply disturbing nine-minute rape scene.

The good folk at Cannes loved it and it came close to winning a jury prize.

Leave it to Lars von Trier, however, to come up with the festival's most shocking onscreen moment.

His 2009 entry, Antichrist, featured male genitalia that gushed blood and an excruciating scene where Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilated her own parts with a rusty scissors.

Some gasped, but others politely applauded. Only at Cannes.

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