Cannes Film Festival

By Kieron Corless

An extract from Kieron Corless and Chris Darke's forthcoming book on the festival

It’s a dinosaur, a brothel, a decadent PR-led spectacle; it’s a cinematic cornucopia, a finely-tuned barometer, a vital commercial showcase. There are as many strongly-held and polarised opinions about the Cannes film festival as there are ‘festivaliers’, and right now there are more of them than ever. Accreditations for the 2005 edition stood at 21,000 for the festival, 9,500 for the market. The number of films invited to compete in the Official Selection for the much-coveted Palme d’Or has barely altered in recent years (21 in 2005), but much else around that high-profile core entity has. Cannes just keeps on growing; including all the market screenings, there were more than 900 new feature films shown there in 2005. That makes it by some distance the biggest film festival, not to mention the biggest film market, in the world.

paris-je-t-aime-1.jpgTuileries (Joel and Ethan Coen)

It’s also the second biggest media event after the Olympics, which means producers will move heaven and earth to display their wares at Cannes. Far more than its closest rivals Venice and Berlin, the publicity generated by a prize – or that special ‘buzz’ – at Cannes will impact colossally on a film’s commercial prospects and seal a director’s reputation internationally. Achieving this level of worldwide recognition and pre-eminence has been, like all success stories, a combination of good fortune and canniness. Set up as a rival ‘free festival’ in 1939 to counter Venice’s fascist leanings, its location on the Cote d’Azur was a strategic choice which has nevertheless reaped unforeseen dividends. The iconography of (long vanished) topless starlets cavorting on sun-kissed beaches, of carefree Mediterranean licence, persists in the popular imagination, to the festival’s enduring advantage.

The gorgeous location and clement May weather have also been instrumental in tempting those all-important American stars across the Atlantic, inaugurating a complex, longstanding engagement between Cannes and America, between – at its simplest – the auteur cinema with which France and Europe have long been associated, and another kind driven primarily by profits and entertainment. More than any other forum, Cannes has thrown the tensions provoked by those different versions of what constitutes cinema into sharp relief; at certain periods they’ve been mutually enriching, at other times deeply antagonistic.

wong-kar-wai-1.jpgWong Kar Wai will be president of the jury of the 59th Festival de Cannes

Which begs the question – does Cannes need Hollywood more than Hollywood needs Cannes? The European market is hugely important for the big contemporary Hollywood releases. Sending your stars to parade at Cannes ensures massive press and TV coverage and removes the necessity for all that tiresome and expensive slogging round European capitals. For the festival, those big American stars crucially supply the glamour and allure upon which its reputation has been founded, and so enable it to stay ahead of its rivals. There’s a mutual dependence, but a mutual suspicion and wariness too.

A resonant anecdote related by Mike Leigh, a Palme d’Or winner with Secrets And Lies in 1997, shines a humorous spotlight on this occasionally uneasy relationship. Leigh was first invited into the Cannes competition in 1996 with Naked, a big event for a small British art-house film. Arriving by limo at his film’s evening screening, a festival official politely requested that Leigh and his entourage stand aside to let no less an eminence than Arnold Schwarzenegger precede them up the red carpet. Delighted to learn that Arnie was coming to see their film, the team gladly complied, enabling a beaming, waving Arnie to sweep past them and bask in the crowd’s exultant cheers. Leigh and co. trooped up the steps after him only to discover that Arnie, his photo-op completed, had made a swift exit through a side-door of the Grand Palais, and scuttled off down the Croisette to enjoy an early dinner!

So Cannes, as many observers have noted, is curiously schizophrenic. In 2005 Paris Hilton and George Lucas brought the place to a standstill, while a low-budget art film by the Belgian Dardennes Brothers carried off the main prize. Those kinds of seismic contrasts produce endless dramas, which of course constitute any film festival’s lifeblood. In Cannes’ case they’ve often been political, the most recent example being the award to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 just prior to the US election. Cannes attracts controversy, and accusations of corruption, like moths to a lamp. Former jury presidents Dirk Bogarde and the writer Francoise Sagan both went on record to claim the festival attempted to influence the principal awards in 1984 and 1979 respectively. In 2003 the trade magazine Variety offered compelling evidence that films with French financial input had a much higher chance of being accepted into the Competition than those without.

The latter accusation contains a useful reminder that the festival is an enormous commercial enterprise, a ‘state business’ as Colin McCabe has called it. The festival’s budget currently stands at 20 million Euros per annum, a mix of private and public money. Cannes’ long-term investment in cinema as an art form, its championing of the auteur, does not preclude hard-headed business acumen. The vast amounts of sponsorship and TV money sloshing around Cannes nowadays, supplied principally by L’Oreal and Canal Plus, brings huge numbers of ‘corporate’ audiences in its train who, along with the myriad star-gazers, contribute to the festival’s gigantism. It doesn’t make for a relaxed experience. Trying to walk past the Palais can be akin to shoving your way through a crowds of city-centre shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, especially when one of the more elevated superstars is fluttering up the red-carpet. Several days of this, let alone two weeks, can rapidly erode your reserves of good humour.

According to Cannes lore, once upon a time you really could just sit down and have a coffee with Alfred Hitchcock or Cary Grant, without first begging 82 different publicists for the privilege. The innocence and intimacy of those early days have long been obliterated, epitomised by the replacement of the small-scale old Palais by the Orwellian Grand Palais in 1983, nicknamed Le Bunker, a monumental and monumentally hideous building. Security around it is tight, to put it mildly. ‘I’ve been fucking manhandled by those guys!’ one well-known American producer recently recounted, clearly still smarting from the experience. Actress Rita Tushingham recalls pressing up her nose up to the window of the Taste of Honey party in 1962 ‘like a Dickensian waif’, shut out by some security goon who refused to believe she was the star of the film, despite the fact she’d just been awarded the Best Actress prize. With its ruthlessly imposed hierarchies, endless black limos and overbearing security, ‘it feels very fascistic’, director John Boorman has noted. You possibly shouldn’t go to Cannes if you’re feeling a bit delicate or insecure.

The resulting hothouse, semi-hysterical atmosphere produces a phenomenon christened ‘festival fever’. It’s apparent at other festivals too, but with nothing like the intensity of Cannes, where ultimately so much more is at stake. Festival fever can manifest itself in all kinds of ways. If you’re Spike Lee, you might threaten to baseball-bat Jury President Wim Wenders in 1989 for not bestowing honours on Do The Right Thing. In the typical Cannes audience, you might find yourself either stamping and cheering, or baying and hissing like a feral dog when the lights go up, much as if you were in a Roman amphitheatre circa 100 BC. Numerous directors have spoken of this sacrificial element to the Cannes experience, and while many careers have been made at Cannes (or ‘anointed’ as the French critics like to call it), plenty of others have been killed stone dead. If you’re a journalist you might suspend your normal critical faculties to entertain the most outlandish rumours, which seem to flourish in these febrile conditions. You enter a bubble when you go to Cannes, removed from the rest of the world and operating by its own rules; the behaviour it induces can seem quite baffling when recollected in later tranquillity.

If you’re up for the challenge though, Cannes has something for just about everyone. Parallel strands such as Director’s Fortnight and Critics’ Week, dedicated to unearthing new, more experimental directorial talent, mean the festival covers an enormous cinematic terrain. They also reveal the festival’s capacity for reinvention, exemplified more recently by new initiatives such as Tous Les Cinemas Du Monde and L’Atelier du Festival. Despite its black tie conservatism, Cannes has managed to adapt and thrive. With a relatively new artistic director at the helm, the festival’s identity will undoubtedly shift again in its seventh decade. It might be a dinosaur, but this beast is a long way from extinction yet.

Kieron Corless writes for Time Out London. He is the co-author with Chris Darke of a forthcoming book about Cannes published by Faber & Faber in 2007. Thanks to Simon Cropper, from Timeout Guides and Time Out 1000 Films To Change Your Life, and also to Richard Kelly at Faber & Faber.