It seems somewhat condescending to you, the reader, to begin this article with something as basic as “What IS the Cannes Film Festival?” – yet this isn’t an entirely stupid question. The Festival means different things to different people: it is an artistic showcase, a merit-based competition, an indication of current trends, a first base for “Awards Season”. All these and more. Not to mention the difference between those who view it as a light entertainment thing and those who consider it a fine art exhibition. So from the awards themselves, to its overseas impact, let’s plough through together…
A BRIEF FESTIVAL HISTORY
The Cannes Film Festival was founded by the French Education Dept. in the late ’30s with the not-so-singular vision of showcasing the best of world cinema, with a natural national-minded focus on French film. Its original incarnation was scheduled for the autumn of 1939, though the invasion of Poland put the kibosh on that plan. The first winner of the early Palme d’Or – simply named the Grand Prix – wasn’t officially honoured until decades later. It was Cecil B. DeMille and Union Pacific, kickstarting – or rather, spiritually kickstarting as a result of that pesky Hitler – a long history of American films leading the Cannes awards charge.
When the Festival returned in 1946, some 44 films competed for the top prize, leading the Jury to award 11 simultaneously. Films sharing the Grand Prize that year included Rosselini’s iconic, movement-starting Rome, Open City, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winner The Lost Weekend and David Lean’s classic British romance Brief Encounter.
After two years off due to budgetary issues, Cannes had a big but brief return in Autumn 1949 to garland The Third Man, then disappeared again, a result of those same financial woes (ironic, given the film’s subject matter). It was in 1951 that the Festival returned, moved to its now-permanent spring slot, and finally found its feet. The Festival has happened nearly every year since: only 1968 suffered cancellation in the face of the country’s May uprisings.
Since 1951, there has only been expansion, including the prominent Marché du Film, a gigantic film market founded in 1959 to allow producers to buy and sell their films – generally more low-budget affairs, plus a ton of documentaries. The presence of the Marché – one of the biggest such markets in the world – is generally seen as offsetting the main Festival and competition by focussing on the practical business side of the film world (as well as, admittedly, the unrealistic dreams of fresh-faced B-movie directors). Not only that, but in nurturing the sale and distribution of films that lack the prestige and support of those in the main Festival, Cannes continues to prove itself as one of the globe’s most diverse cultural and entertainment events.
JURIES AND AWARDS
There’s easily one aspect of the Festival that stands higher than the rest in the popular eye: the awards. What exactly can one win at Cannes?
Many things, as it turns out. The clear candidate for “Highest Honour” is obviously the Palme d’Or, but any of the twenty-odd films In Competition each year should be pleased with a Grand Prix (second place) or a Prix du Jury (Jury Prize, third place). That said, one of the most complex parts of Cannes’ organisation is the selection process that usually selects films from relatively established directors for its Main Competition – effectively making it impossible for a large number of filmmakers in any given year to even aspire to entry, let alone a shot at winning.
No, first you have to pass through the hallowed gates of industry recognition. If you’re a first-time Cannes entrant, you’re more likely to premiere in the Un Certain Regard section, which has its own jury to honour young, adventurous up-and-comers and has a first-place prize of €30,000 to aid your budding career. Recent winners of Un Certain Regard include The Missing Picture and Dogtooth; 2002 winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, meanwhile, went on to claim the Palme eight years later with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, so Un Certain Regard is of proven importance and, well, regard.
Though filmmakers competing in both Main Competition and Un Certain Regard typically require some evident promise, total first-timers can still find themselves with a Camera d’Or, for the best first feature. This can be awarded to any film shown in any competition (bear in mind both the bigger competitions do sometimes feature debuts) – though last year’s Palme hopeful Ryan Gosling was never gonna get anything for Lost River. High-profile winners of the Camera include Jim Jarmusch, Mira Nair, Miranda July and Steve McQueen, as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Benh Zeitlin.
But back to the Main Competition. Aside from the Palme d’Or and its second and third-place Prix, there are prizes for Directing, Writing and Acting (both masculin and feminin). Juries are generally encouraged to split their awards as far as possible – the Coens’ Barton Fink winning the Palme, Director and Actor prizes in 1991 was seen as a bit much – though occasionally a film will take home one of the Top Three prizes in addition to an acting gong. The last film to do this was Haneke’s La Pianiste, which claimed Grand Prix and both acting awards in 2001.
Films can double up, however, among the independent prizes, of which the most prominent are the FIPRESCI (a “Best Film” gong from the International Federation of Film Critics, given at a number of different festivals); the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (honouring the best films with a deep and potent spiritual/philosophical bent, which sounds bizarre but when honorees have included The Hunt, Of Gods and Men, Caché and The Sweet Hereafter, who’s complaining?); and, recently, the Queer Palm, which since 2010 has done exactly what it says on the tin and rewarded masterworks such as Pride, Stranger by the Lake and Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways.
The strangest and most complex relationship on the Cannes Croisette is near impossible to pin down. Cannes and Hollywood have a great many affinities, the glitz being one of them. There is little obvious observational difference between premieres of the quietest Cannes entrant and the loudest LA blockbuster. Cannes, in fact, is impossible to remove from its haute aesthetics and seems to do its best to attract the best-looking stars in the world – which can be refreshing, offsetting the inherent exhaustion of darkened-room film-watching with a brightness and glamour that makes the Festival de Cannes an altogether more pop-surrealist experience than its Venice, Toronto and London rivals.
Furthermore, Cannes seems to love a good American indie flick more than anything else: the USA leads the world in Palme d’Or winners, with 18 overall (including MASH, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, sex, lies and videotape, Wild at Heart, Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction, Elephant, Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Tree of Life). Italy trails in second place with 12. America also has the highest number of Cannes awards in general, including 12 Directing prizes (three of which went to the Coens) and 41 Acting prizes.
The issue here is not groundbreaking, but is certainly interesting. That is, the question of whether a huge and prestigious international program should be giving so much attention to English-language filmmakers already looking at promotion into one of the biggest worldwide markets. These are artistic awards, yes, and are rarely undeserving on that front; but for many non-English works, the boost of a concrete Cannes win can be of great help in getting the art seen. For instance, what percentage of Nebraska‘s box office can be realistically attributed to Bruce Dern’s Cannes Best Actor win? Could this not have gone to Venus in Furs‘ Mathieu Amalric, and so boosted the exposure of that brilliant, arch, gender-blasting drama?
Yet at the heart of it all is that simple, nagging realisation that yes, good art is good art. Who cares who’s awarding who, and why, as long as it’s all being recognised? Cannes every year gives a broad slice of the latest trends in international cinema and in many ways separates the wheat from the chaff long before that climactic awards ceremony. Fans of fine film art can browse through the programme and decide what to track down later (not at the Festival of course, it’s application only). Tentative first-time filmmakers can gauge responses to their work on a genuinely large international scale, including in the Cinéfondation, a section for carefully-chosen film school pieces; or they can sell their wares in the Marché and so get just as significant a boost in distribution and exposure as if they’d been playing In Competition alongside names like Sorrentino, Audiard and Haynes.
In short, then, most everything about the Cannes Film Festival is a film lover’s paradise. It’s a treat to follow and watch the reviews roll out, more so even than those big Oscar bellwethers in late summer and early autumn. For sheer cutting-edge quality-art thrill, only Sundance is even close. If this really is a Beginner’s Guide for you, then our only advice is to start following 2015’s circus as it opens this week; meanwhile, why not gear up with some more classic Palme d’Or winners? We’re dropping our own Top Ten very soon, by the way, so stay tuned. Vive le Cannes!