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Vive La Reine: More About Cannes

NOTE: As threatened, here’s a trifling little essay-sort-of-thing I wrote about Cannes.  If you want to know more about it, don’t take my word for it – but do check out some of the sources at the end.


The Cannes International Film Festival is perhaps the most dazzling two weeks in all of cinema – second only to the Academy Awards, if it is second to anything, in glamour and prestige.  Every May, celebrities, filmmakers, and reporters descend en masse on a small French resort town on the Riviera.  A few dozen films are screened; business deals are struck regarding distribution and exhibition; celebrities and would-be celebrities make sure they’re photographed wearing sensational clothes (or none at all); and eventually a jury – headed by a film star or an especially notable director – bestows some of the films with awards that will ensure media attention, if not box office receipts.  The media frenzy begins in Cannes from the moment the festival opens: Richard Porton writes that for a “film journalist, there is nothing quite as simultaneously dispiriting and hilarious than a visit to the Cannes Film Festival’s bustling pressroom” (2007, 71); Stephen Walker confirms that Cannes consists of “5000 journalists chasing a limited number of stories, every day, every night, for two weeks.  Everybody filming everybody else.  Everybody filming everybody filming everybody else.  Everybody filming everybody filming everybody…And so it goes on.  One big crazy game of Blind Man’s Buff” (1999, 158); and in a Sight and Sound article, the authors noted with a sense of relief that the global financial crisis had led to fewer reporters – and a better selection of films: “The crammed programmes … seemed designed less to please the international mainstream press than to satisfy the cinephiles” (James et al. 2010, 16).  It is, in short, a hectic fortnight.

This is, perhaps, a slightly cynical overview of what happens every year at Cannes.  However, the point remains that it is, first and foremost, an event: while the films are ostensibly the reason everyone congregates on that particular spot, the glitz and glamour are at least equal to, if not greater than, the importance of the films.  Lanie Goodman writes, “It’s pure pandemonium: flashbulbs popping, photographers shouting at the top of their lungs (‘Sharon, this way, look over here!’) and actors posing, waving and smiling.  Up the famed red-carpeted stairs they go (mind those stilettos), then the perfunctory kiss or handshake with all-powerful Festival President” (2009, 12).  Perhaps by virtue of that glitz and glamour, Cannes has easily outpaced other film festivals from around the world in importance, prestige, and notoriety.  It is, as Jay Scott says, “queen in a world without kings” (Beauchamp and Behar 1992, 22). With such spectacle integral to its very existence, Cannes has nevertheless secured its place in film culture and industry as a crucial event, marketplace, and spectacle.

Has it always been this way?  Perhaps not in its initial modelling, but certainly in its practice throughout all its years of existence.  Cannes Film Festival was initially conceived as a counterpoint to the Venice Film Festival:

The idea for the Cannes Festival dates back to the late 1930s, when Louis Lumière, the inventor of the motion picture, planned to preside over a new film festival’s first edition, “to further the development of the cinematic art in all its forms and create a spirit of cooperation among producing nations.” The idea was to offer some competition to the annual Venice film festival, then in the hands of the Italian Fascist government, with a monopoly on cinematic prize-giving (Goodman 2009, 13).

Cannes was therefore intended to be a more inclusive, more artistically inclined, and fairer film festival.  The first iteration of Cannes Film Festival was meant to take place on 1 September 1939; on that eventful day, however, Germany invaded Poland and brought Europe more or less to a halt for the next seven years.  By 1946, after World War II had reduced much of the continent to rubble, Cannes’s organisers were ready to try again – this time, as a means of repairing the deep wounds and bringing Europe (and the rest of the world) back together again.  Janet Harbord sees Cannes’s post-war roots as leading inextricably to the festival’s current form and function: it “is a broad historical project of rebuilding Europe, a rebuilding of the social infrastructure ravaged by the Second World War, and a consolidation of Europe as a significant player in a global economy. Importantly, by the post-war period, culture has become a means of representing the status of place and facilitating local economies through cultural events” (2002, 64).  Robert Favre Le Bret, the festival’s first director general, said, “We dreamed of an event where countries could be assured of total equality and total equity” (Beauchamp and Behar 1992, 43).  With this spirit, the show went on; and by 1951, France had stabilised enough that the Festival de Cannes was able to become an annual event.

While there have been some fluctuations in the structure of the awards at Cannes, the ostensible point of the festival has, from the start, been to reward the best films from around the world.  The festival president determines which twenty films will form the Official Selection – which a jury of film industry insiders, often led by a seasoned actor or director (previous juries have been headed by everyone from Orson Welles to Quentin Tarantino), views to decide which gets the coveted Palme d’Or: the Cannes equivalent of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture Oscar.  Other awards include the Grand Prix, given to the second-best picture; the Prix du Jury, given to the third-best; the Palme d’Or du court métrage, given to the best short film; the Prix d’interprétation masculine et feminine, given to the best actor and actress; the Prix de la mise en scène, given to the best director; and the Prix du scénario, given to the best screenplay.  Those rewarded for being the best can be assured of international press coverage – as often for controversy as for congratulations: in 2004, the Tarantino-led jury gave the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, for reasons likely more political than artistic (Mazdon 2007, 9).  Welles reportedly wanted to give the Palme d’Or to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in 1983, but was persuaded to give it the Grand Prix instead.

There is more to Cannes than awards, however: since 1959, the festival has included the Marché du Film.  As Cari Beauchamp and Henri Behar explain,

For the major U.S. studios, whose films can make up to seventy percent of their revenues from overseas markets, Cannes is the primary business convention of the year and the film’s media launchpad. … For independent producers, Cannes brings together an unprecedented number of distributors and other film festival programmers. … For theater owners and programmers from other festivals, Cannes is the ultimate screening room. … For directors, Cannes provides access to working producers and studio heads on an informal and equal basis (1992, 23).

At this annual event, thousands of representatives of film industries from hundreds of different countries strike deals for distribution rights, films in development, schedules for upcoming festivals, project financing, and other less glamorous – but no less crucial – cogs in the film industry’s machine.  In 2012, there were 11,500 participants from 110 countries, shopping around 4,659 films.  While there are distributors from many countries present, the ultimate goal for every producer at the Marché is to secure distribution rights with a Hollywood studio.  It is not a guarantee of financial and critical success, but it is far more likely to lead to these things than a deal with a smaller distributor in a smaller marketplace.

The Cannes Film Festival, as spectacular as it is, highlights some interesting tensions in world cinema: among others, French film culture versus Hollywood; art versus commerce; inclusion versus hierarchy.  Lucy Mazdon notes,

Indeed the relationship between French cinema and Hollywood, typically cast by critics and commentators in terms of tension and struggle, lies squarely at the heart of the history of the construction of a French national cinema. As the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreements on US film imports to France and the 1993 GATT rounds and French calls for “l’exception culturelle” reveal, the opposition between a French cinema of art and quality and an American cinema of mass entertainment has proved invaluable in the articulation of a uniquely “French” cinema (2007, 10).

Although films from many countries find their way to the Official Selection to be considered for the Palme d’Or and other awards, it is often a big-budget Hollywood film – set to be released worldwide in time for the summer movie season after the festival – that opens Cannes each year.  They are screened out of competition, but they often bring the most luminous stars and the most flashing photographers’ cameras; the past decade’s opening films have included Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Pixar’s Up, and Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code.  The Palme d’Or winners for those years – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, respectively – were quite emphatically un-Hollywood.  Commercial cinema – i.e., Hollywood movies – can of course make its way into competition, and indeed be awarded by the jury.  But from 1946 onward, there has been considerable tension between intellectual French film culture and Hollywood’s seemingly mass-marketed movies.  Kieron Corless and Chris Drake write that

the spectacle of Hollywood films at Cannes provoked wonder tempered by frustration: wonder at their technical perfection and frustration over the infantile avoidance of anything that spoke directly to the European experience of life during wartime. … The great critic André Bazin also enthused over “the formidable machinery of Hollywood which seems at last to have attained the degree of perfection whereby the artist is liberated from technology”.  But … Bazin observed of the American films that they seemed “suspended in a stratosphere where the problems of individual or collective life, of politics or morality, are no longer addressed but as imaginary, like death in a detective novel” (2007, 22).

The tension between international film culture and America’s film industry has been palpably present, year after year.  Nevertheless, the winner is often the side with the most money and power: in the words of one Cannes attendee, “once the festival has come to town, you don’t hear French spoken, you don’t even hear English, you only hear American” (Beauchamp and Behar 1992, 25).

Even with that foundation on film culture and industry, and even with that spirit of inclusion and restoration, Cannes was always going to be a glamorous event.  For the doomed 1939 festival, MGM sent over a cruise ship full of movie stars (Mazdon 2007, 16).  The 1946 inaugural festival, despite the toll taken by the war, was similarly starry: from the directorial firmament came René Clément, Jean Cocteau, King Vidor, and Alfred Hitchcock (Goodman 2009, 13).  Once it found solid enough ground to recur annually, it also found a steady supply of willing would-be celebrities: from the early 1950s onward, Cannes has been a guarantor of instant (if fleeting) fame for pretty starlets splashing about in the Mediterranean.  Photographers snapped hundreds of thousands of pictures of beautiful people seemingly taking a fabulous holiday in the south of France – sunbathing, swimming, flirting, wearing their very finest or nothing at all.  Actresses from Hollywood and throughout Europe – Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren – made it a point to be seen in Cannes, as did scores of other film industry insiders.  Other film festivals may be better respected, but none have approached Cannes’s ability to generate fame.

Furthermore, as Mazdon writes,

the annual festival is also a means of promoting the resort and its leisure industries. Festival activities spill out on to the Croisette and even the liminal space of the beach (which tends to host those activities considered peripheral or “other” to the festival, notably the “Hots d’or”, the semi-naked starlets).  Media coverage of Cannes tells us as much about the glamorous parties, the luxury hotels and the leisure activities of the participants as it does about the films.  The decision to host the festival in this resort town established an inextricable link between film festival and tourism from the outset (2007, 17).

Indeed, this is an interesting point to consider: many film festivals, particularly those founded just before, during, or just after World War II (Venice, Berlin, London, Melbourne, and Edinburgh), take place in major or capital cities.  Cannes, France, on the other hand, is a small resort town.  From the 1830s onward, it has been a summer home

for the rich and famous.  Queen Victoria’s daughter preceded her to Cannes and spent two months at the Grand Hotel.  The queen herself came regularly during the 1880s and her sons, especially the Prince of Wales, were well known in the casinos.  Russian aristocracy also frequented the coast.  The Grand Duke Michael made his annual trip in a private train from St. Petersburg to Cannes at a speed of twenty-four miles an hour, disrupting the railroad travel and communications of several countries along the way (Beauchamp and Behar 1992, 41-42).

It became a fashionable destination for the European smart set, utterly dependent on tourism money for its survival.  In the late 1930s, when the Minister of National Education and Fine Arts, Jean Zay, was trying to decide between Cannes and Biarritz for a home for France’s film festival, Cannes won because it was willing to refashion itself in whatever form the French government asked.

With all of this in mind, perhaps it is possible to evaluate Cannes’s place among film festivals – and its place in film culture/industry overall.  In a comparison of eleven film festivals, a Guardian article proclaimed that “Cannes dominates the European festival circuit” (Bradshaw et al. 2012) – and this seems to be the consensus.  Writing of the 2011 festival, Amy Taubin writes that it “skewed toward grandiosity in entertainment (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides playing out of competition) and art (Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or)” (2011, 56).  Tina Kaufman notes the sobering effects of the global financial crisis on 2009’s festival – but still describes what sounds like a rather complete viewing and party schedule:

However, despite having what was widely agreed to be the best selection of films for a long time, the festival itself was a victim of economic reality.  Some of the biggest parties were cancelled, many others scaled down and, for the first time in years, it was easy to get a hotel room or a table in a restaurant.  It was apparently also easy to secure meetings with buyers, and people were drinking wine instead of Champagne.  Attendance was reported to be down by between twenty and thirty per cent, with corporate expense accounts savaged by the global financial crisis.  The UK’s Financial Times declared that Cannes had been “hit by cutbacks and caution”, with the cancellation of the always eagerly-awaited Vanity Fair party a sign of the times (2009, 134).

Such harsh interferences by reality are, it seems, passing clouds over Cannes’s steady sunshine.  It is still the biggest – if not the best: the Guardian profile observes that Berlin “brings the heft of the arthouse with most of the glitz buffed off” while Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, “is arguably as valued as the Palme d’Or, though perhaps not as newsworthy” (Bradshaw et al. 2012).  The former president of the festival, Gilles Jacob, stated, “The only question that I find important is that of the future of independent, auteur cinema, and thus the future of film festivals, as they are basically the same thing” (Kaufman 2009, 135) – reiterating the festival’s own mission: “to draw attention to and raise the profile of films with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.”  Nevertheless, Cannes is first and foremost a spectacle, and Nick James argues that the “stylistic grandstanding” of films like Inglourious Basterds and Antichrist

doesn’t do much for Cannes’ avowed true mission.  There was a palpable sense at the festival that the French see it as their responsibility to take possession of world cinema’s future: such films as Johnnie To’s Vengeance and Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage evidence a co-production cultural nurturing that sometimes veers uncomfortably close to orientalism.  But since there’s no other economic force willing or able to assist arthouse cinema through these difficult times, perhaps we should shut up and be grateful (2009, 20-21).

Corless and Drake wryly note that Cannes seems quite eager to abide by Hugo and Baudelaire’s phrase, épater les bourgeois:

Literally meaning “to flabbergast the middle class” or “to stagger the conventionally-minded”, it carries connotations that Anglo-Saxonisms like “satirise” or “take the piss” simply cannot – connotations of shock, scandal and controversy. … From Manet’s Olympia and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the chronology of modern art is a list of conventions controversially overturned and audiences suitably scandalised (2007, 95).

Other film festivals, while certainly possessing their own gimmicks and points of difference, simply do not have the ability to shock and awe as Cannes.  As sensational and flashy as a courtesan in any nineteenth-century melodrama, Cannes ensures that it is impossible to ignore.  From the topless starlets to the grandest cinematic spectaculars, its position as queen of the film festival circuit is unchallenged.  Christian Gaines avers, “When Cannes no longer matters, film will no longer matter” (Kaufman 2009, 137).  To put it another way, when the pageantry and glitz and glamour of Cannes fail to attract the most interesting films, the brightest stars, the greatest numbers of photographers and journalists; when the Marché du Film dwindles to something more reminiscent of a going-out-of-business sale at a video rental store; when, in short, the Cannes Film Festival ceases to be what it has been for the past sixty-odd years – then cinema as we now know it will probably have also ceased to be.  Cannes is inextricably tied up in both film culture and film industry, as both producer and consumer.  To consider the culture or the industry without Cannes is nearly impossible.



Works Cited

Beauchamp, Cari and Henri Behar. “Welcome to Cannes.” In Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival, 21-47.  New York: Morrow and Co., 1992.

Bradshaw, Peter, Henry Barnes, Andrew Pulver, and Catherine Shoard. “Film festivals: which is top dog?”, The Guardian, 19 April 2012. Accessed 30 September 2012.

Corless, Kieron and Chris Drake. Cannes: Inside the World’s Premier Film Festival. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 2007.

Festival de Cannes. “About Us.” Accessed 29 September 2012.

Goodman, Lanie. “Lights Camera Cannes.” France Today 5 (2009): 12-14.

Harbord, Janet. Film Cultures. London: Sage, 2002.

James, Nick. “Backing the Future.” Sight & Sound 7 (2009): 19-24.

James, Nick, Lee Marshall, Geoff Andrew, and Jonathan Romney. “Cannes 2010.” Sight & Sound 7 (2010): 16-22.

Kaufman, Tina. “Film Festivals: Looking Forward.” Metro 161 (2009): 134-137.

Mazdon, Lucy. “Transnational ‘French’ Cinema: The Cannes Film Festival.” Modern & Contemporary France 1 (2007): 9-20.

Porton, Richard. “The Cannes Film Festival.” Cineaste 4 (2007): 71-73.

Taubin, Amy. “All Movies Great and Small.” Film Comment 4 (2011): 56-59.

Walker, Stephen. King of Cannes: A Journey in the Underbelly of the Movies. London: Heinemann, 1999.


One comment on “Vive La Reine: More About Cannes

  1. Karen
    April 28, 2013

    Thank you for posting this! I feel much better informed. I love that Orson Welles wanted to give the Palme d’Or to The Meaning of Life!

    I really enjoyed the fashions and weirdness of Gold Diggers of 1933, by the way!

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