HOLLYWOOD It is perhaps no accident that, for the world, the two defining images of the Cannes Film Festival are of topless girls on the beach and of people in formal attire crowding in to attend a movie. The contrast between these impressions expresses the many polarities and paradoxes that the festival manages to accommodate, and summarizes the basic instincts as well as the high art aspirations that have always driven the festival and the cinema itself.
Art vs. commerce, first-time directors competing against legendary figures, revolutionary art presented in a setting of fabulous wealth, Hollywood vs. the rest of the world, masterpieces and abject trash, bleary-eyed critics and salesmen who haven’t even seen the movies they’re selling, rarefied artists and hustlers, titans of the industry and glamorous stars under the same roof with countless wannabes: Cannes takes them all in. Where else would young aspiring actors Robert Redford and Gerard Depardieu, at different times, travel to and sleep on the beach just to get near the action? Where else do so many people race off at 8:30 in the morning, and sometimes fight to get in, to see a three-hour picture that may never play to a full house again? Where else, as a 20-year-old student and beginning critic, would I have had the occasion to share fraises chantilly on the beach with Candice Bergen in the afternoon and a four-hour dinner with William Wyler that night? Where, in the final analysis, is the cinema d’auteur as alive and well as it remains in Cannes?
Cannes, at 50, is not the oldest film festival in the world, but it is, and has been for quite some time, the most famous. Surviving enormous up-heavals in the global film industry, changing tastes, political disruptions, artistic controversies and the challenges of countless other younger festivals around the world, Cannes has indisputably remained the preeminent film event in the world. Virtually throughout its history, Cannes has been the place, more than any other, where talents are discovered, reputations are made and deals are done, where someone can arrive a nobody and depart a star, where Hollywood began mixing with the rest of the cinematic world, where the true internationalization of film took place. Cannes has been the place where film as business and film as art form have most conspicuously commingled, with the art usually carrying the day by a whisker.
Although the initial Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946, it officially came into being seven years earlier, if for only one night. The first film festival in the world, in Venice, had been launched in 1932, but as Mussolini and then the Nazis increasingly came to dominate that event, culminating in a refusal to give the top award to Jean Renoir’s pacifist-minded “La Grande Illusion” in 1938, the French decided to counter with their own event celebrating international cinema. It went down to the wire whether Cannes, a favorite Mediterranean resort of royalty and the wealthy, or Biarritz, on the Atlantic, would host it, but when the Cannes city fathers agreed to construct a Palais to house the gathering, the fest was theirs.
The first edition was scheduled for the first three weeks of September in 1939. An illustrious “steamship of stars” set sail from the U.S. bearing such Hollywood celebrities as Gary Cooper, Mae West, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, George Raft, Douglas Fairbanks and Constance Bennett, as well as the French-Americans Annabella and Charles Boyer. The studios further cooperated by sending some 10 titles, including “The Wizard Of Oz,” “Golden Boy” and “Each Dawn I Die,” while Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and, of course, France were the other scheduled participants; Louis Lumiere, no less, was honorary president of the jury. But on the very day the festival was to begin, Sept. 1, Hitler invaded Poland. With a giant replica of Notre Dame Cathedral rising from the beach, the opening-night film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Charles Laughton, was shown, whereupon the rest of the fest was canceled, eclipsed by world events.
When the festival was revived in the year following war’s end, the venue was the town’s old Municipal Casino. On opening night, where the guests included Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Maria Montez, Grace Moore sang “La Marseillaise” to the accompaniment of fireworks over the port. That first year, 44 films from 18 nations were entered, with Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” emerging as the first among 11 equals sharing the Grand Prize.
Heavy taxes imposed to finance the construction of the $700,000 Palais, on the site of the old Cercle Nautique, created considerable resentment among the Cannois toward the festival. Rushed to completion in three months’ time, the Palais was ready for opening night, but the “temporary” roof blew off when the first mistral hit; the finished Palais was not officially inaugurated until 1949.
Serious international films were the order of the day, but the festival in the early years was a very elite, relatively relaxed affair given intellectual distinction by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre but often dominated by such non-film personalities as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, partygiver Elsa Maxwell, the Aga Khan, his wife, the Begum, and their playboy son Aly Khan, whose marriage to Rita Hayworth in Cannes in 1949 capped a Riviera romance that would be eclipsed by an even more star-crossed wedding seven years later.
A few basics about Cannes that even many longtime festgoers don’t know: 1997 marks the 50th edition of the event because no festival was held in 1948 or 1950 due to economic problems; the festival was held in September through the 1940s, in direct competition with Venice, but has taken place in May since 1951; the festival’s top award was known as the “Grand Prix” until 1955, when it was renamed the “Palme d’Or”; the annual budget of the festival by the mid-1990s hit $6 million, with half coming from the French state and the other half derived from various city and regional governments as well as some professional groups; in 1946, some 300 people officially registered to attend the festival, compared to 5,000 in 1966 and 28,672 in 1996; and in 1966, 700 journalists received accreditation, whereas 3,867 (including TV technicians) were approved in 1996.
Most important, however, is the fact that, until 1972, the films entered in the festival were submitted by the participating nations themselves (much as the foreign-language film Oscar candidates are determined), not selected by the festival staff. This process resulted in choices that were made often for political, propaganda and inscrutable internecinereasons. That’s one reason Cannes became one of the many fronts on which the Cold War was fought, particularly in the 1950s, when the American Sixth Fleet often was anchored in the harbor during festival time, while the Soviets constantly put on a human face to promote the virtues of communism; they also scored a major coup by winning the Palme d’Or in 1958 with “The Cranes Are Flying.”
Taking the selection process into its own hands — a move initiated by Maurice Bessy when he assumed the key position of “general delegate” (essentially, festival director) from Robert Favre Le Bret, who had run the event since 1952 — was only the most significant of several key decisions that spurred Cannes to develop in ways that caused it to far surpass the other two international festivals that were essentially its equals in importance through the late 1960s, Venice and Berlin. In terms of public perception, Cannes was always more alluring and glamorous from the moment in 1954 that French starlet Simone Sylva approached Robert Mitchum during a big press luncheon and dropped her bra, causing a photographers’ delight that fixed a certain image of Cannes in the public’s eye once and for all.
Cannes certainly also enjoyed the advantages of a romantic, enormously scenic setting; the presence of countless American filmmakers who, for one reason or another, largely abandoned Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s in favor of Europe; and the publicity generated by the fabled romance between Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco that started during the festival in 1955 and culminated in the lavish royal wedding held during the fest the following year.
To this day, in fact, Cannes retains an aristocratic, rather formal aura due to its legacy, the nature of its host country and the very character of the men who run it: At what other festival are evening movie audiences required to dress in black tie? In the late 1950s, the festival was regarded by some as far too elitist and not willing or able to promote the best international cinema. So extreme were some of the French attacks on the festival that one of the country’s most vitriolic critics, Francois Truffaut, was banned from Cannes in 1958, only to return the following year to win the director prize for his first feature, “The 400 Blows.”
But what initially set Cannes on a different course from other important festivals, and ultimately forged its bifurcated character, was the establishment of the Marche du Film, or International Film Market. Inaugurated in 1959 in one screening room under a tent on the roof of the old Palais, it soon spread to backstreet local cinemas around the Rue d’Antibes and provided a nascent forum for the buying and selling that at times have threatened to overwhelm the discussion of artistic matters on the Croisette. That the festival would permit this at all constituted a provocation to some of the more high-minded participants, who fretted that the event was sullied and downgraded by the presence of crass salesmen and pictures of dubious merit. Some saw it otherwise, as a way for offbeat and perhaps marginal films without sufficient pedigree to see the light of a projector’s lamp. In philosophical terms, the introduction of the market was a frank admission of the unavoidably two-pronged nature of motion pictures themselves, as an art form that, more than any other, requires significant economic support to survive.
All the same, the Marche remained a low-key, marginal event through the 1960s, when the only official sidebar to the Official Selection was the Critics’ Week, established in 1962.
These were exciting years for Cannes and the international cinema at large. Although Cannes audiences didn’t always recognize a landmark film when they saw one — the Palais echoed with boos when “L’avventura” was first shown — this was the era of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Bunuel, Bergman, Bresson, Demy, Varda, Ray, Germi, Olmi, Anderson, Lester, Reisz, Losey, Lelouch, dos Santos, Rocha, Teshigahara, Kobayashi, Ichikawa, Saura, Munk, Menzel, Chukhrai, Widerberg, Forman, Jancso, Costa-Gavras and Tarkovsky. Just a few of the immortal films that premiered at Cannes in those years were “La Dolce Vita,” “8 1/2,” “The Eclipse,” “Viridiana,” “The Exterminating Angel,” “Ballad of a Soldier,” “The Virgin Spring,” “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Cleo From 5 to 7,” “The Innocents,” “Devi,” “Divorce Italian Style,” “This Sporting Life,” “The Leopard,” “The Knack,” “The Fiances,” “Vidas Secas,” “Black God White Devil,” “The Soft Skin,” “Woman in the Dunes,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Birds,” “Kwaidan,” “Chimes at Midnight,” “A Man and a Woman,” “Morgan!,” “Mouchette,” “Accident,” “Blow-Up,” “The Shop on Main Street,” “Elvira Madigan,” “War and Peace.” “Antonio Das Mortes,” “if…,” “Z” and “Easy Rider.”
Cannes’ success did not make it impervious to the political upheavals that hit all of France during the events of May 1968. With such directors as Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Lelouch and Berri leading the charge, the festival was forced to close halfway through, and the French general strike left festgoers stranded and scrambling for ways over the border into Italy, or content to just wait things out on the Croisette.
What could have marked the end of Cannes instead provoked it to reform; paradoxically, the festival emerged from this convulsion stronger than ever, since organizers responded to demands to open the proceedings to more experimental and radical filmmakers by permitting the creation of La Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight), a sort of alternative event concurrent to the Official Selection that, under the direction of Pierre-Henri Deleau, for some years yielded exciting and numerous discoveries of new talent, including Wenders, Jarmusch and Spike Lee, and now often competes for some of the same films with the main event.
In 1970, the U.S. Sixth Fleet was back in the Cannes harbor, on its way to a Middle Eastern hot spot, and so were the American filmmakers. Wearing black armbands to protest the Kent State shootings and the bombing of Cambodia, Robert Altman with “MASH,” which became the first American film to win the Palme d’Or since 1957, and Michael Wadleigh with “Woodstock” led the charge for what was to become a decade of Four more U.S. films–“Scarecrow,” “The Conversation,” “Taxi Driver” and “Apocalypse Now”–won the Palme through the end of the 1970s.
During this period, the festival virtually exploded. After a period in the early 1970s as a hotbed of porno, the market finally took on a life of its own as a teeming cinematic bazaar for buyers and sellers, as well as a place for buffs to search for diamonds in the rough. Further expanding the festival, organizers inaugurated the “Perspectives du Cinema Francais” (now called “Cinemas en France”) to showcase contemporary French films. And when film critic Gilles Jacob took the reins of the festival in 1978, one of his first acts was to reorganize the Official Selection and launch the sidebar Un Certain Regard to include films for which there was no room in the Competition and partly, some felt, to steal some of the thunder from the Directors’ Fortnight.
All of these developments demonstrated that, even if it took threatening events to jolt it, the festival was responsive to the need to change, and served to make Cannes much larger and stronger at a time when Venice, its chief competitor for the title of most prestigious festival, fell into political and organizational chaos. The Berlin Film Festival, the other biggest competitive event in Europe, also experienced some bumpy times, leaving Cannes indisputably alone at the top of the heap.
Nor did Cannes lack for stellar events from the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s that continued to confirm its status as the mecca of the cinema world: The homages to Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Groucho Marx; the tumultuous arrival of Francis Ford Coppola for the world premiere of “Apocalypse Now”; the abandoning, and eventual demolition, of the old Palais in favor of the new bunker; the overwhelming world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”; the ascendancy of American independent cinema with back-to-back-to-back Palme d’Or victories by Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” followed three years later by Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”; and then the first woman, Jane Campion, and first Chinese, Chen Kaige, to win the Palme d’Or.
Cannes has served as the first port of entry for many films from such previous cinematic backwaters as China, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, Australia, Iran and numerous Third World nations; at the same time, it has provided a stage for the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Madonna. It has also become, with its enormous size, many festivals in one: A haven for buyers and sellers that has not been diminished by the advent of Mifed and the American Film Market; a conclave for industry bigwigs cloistered at the Hotel du Cap; the most essential stop of the year for critics and other festival heads needing to stay abreast of cinematic developments; and a place where outsized showmen, from Samuel Z. Arkoff and Lew Grade to Menahem Golan and Harvey Weinstein, can pontificate and make their biggest splash of the year.
Since the 1970s at least, Cannes frequently has been referred to as a zoo or a circus; for anyone seriously working the festival, it produces two weeks of bleary-eyed exhaustion, the two weeks of the year after which you seriously need a vacation when your non-industry friends think you’ve just had a vacation at the movies and on the beach. In 1994, for example, there were 75 films presented in all selective categories of the festival; with another 435 titles surfacing in the market, this made for 510 films total. The best I could manage one year was 50 films, an average of about four per day, but this is something that only the most avid, or loony, critics and buffs even attempt.
French film fanatics
For Americans, and perhaps for some others as well, Cannes also represents the one time of the year they will be exposed to cinemania in its rawest and most serious state, and the French variety of it at that. This forces even the most mainstream critics and journalists to sample, and even pretend to be versed in, filmmakers and national industries that they may not be exposed to elsewhere, and certainly not often at home. Even though commercial considerations have come into play far more than ever in recent years, Cannes is still a place where films are to be discussed and debated seriously before their box office fates are estimated, and it remains very much the home of that French formulation, the cinema d’auteur.
Cannes is everything the cinema is: Glamour and rigor, silliness and seriousness, sex and cerebrum, excess and refinement, business and art, the ridiculous and the sublime. It is always too much and, in off years, not enough. It has held on to its position as the most important international film event of the year by retaining a strong sense of its original elitism and discriminating standards while at the same time embracing change and channeling it effectively. It is both competitive but wide open, regal yet available to the most obscure filmmaker provided there is a hint of talent in his or her picture. It is sprawling and utterly unmanageable, yet somehow it works.