Aug 12, 2007

Cannes film festival celebrates 60 years of glamour

By Kaleem Aftab

Cannes is celebrating 60 years as the world's most glamorous film festival. As the stars prepare to descend on La Croisette, Kaleem Aftab looks back on the highlights.

For a few years after the first official Cannes Film Festival opened on 20 September 1946, no one was sure whether it would turn out to be Frankenstein's Monster or the Ugly Duckling. It was only when a bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot took on the role of the Beautiful Swan gracing the Côte d'Azur in 1953 that Cannes established itself as the first and last word on film festivals.

Teething troubles bedevilled the early years of Cannes: it was was first due to take place in 1939 but Germany's entry into Poland and France's entry into the Second World War on the day the aborted festival opened with The Hunchback of Notre Dame put those plans on hold. The festival didn't take place in 1948 or 1950 at all because of a lack of funds; those were the years when the festival's organisers were still arguing over the best dates for it to take place, moving the event from September to May and then considering shifting the event to February. We have the demands of paparazzi to get more images of ingénues on the beach, and the desire of local hotels to ensure the summer season arrived with a bang, for the decision to roll in May.

The month of May has become synonymous with the strikes and riots in France that created the most noteworthy festival of them all in 1968. On 10 May, the festival opened with a lavish screening of Gone with the Wind in homage to Vivien Leigh, who had died the year before. Five hundred miles away in Paris, the Night of the Barricades saw protracted violence between students and police. Three days later, the French critics' association would join the Labour unions in asking its members to join the students in mass demonstrations against the authoritarian government and that Cannes should be suspended. On 18 May, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Louis Malle and Milos Forman gave a press conference that precipitated the suspension of the festival one day later.

It's fitting that the most dynamic day in the history of Cannes involved a demonstration, given that the festival originated from the desire to give an alternative to the Venice Film Festival, which Mussolini was using as a showcase for fascist propaganda. (In 1938, Riefenstahl's Olympiad and Alessandrini's Luciano Serra: Pilota won the top prizes at Venice.) As a consequence of the May 1968 protests, the following year Cannes added the Directors' Fortnight sidebar to show films that were too offbeat or edgy to get into competition and offer a further alternative to the International Critics' Week that had been set up by in 1962 by the French journalist Georges Sadoul.

Now, some 4,000 journalists from around the world go to Cannes in the hope of getting a scoop on a film star. The iconic image of the festival remains Bardot on the beach. But not everyone has their moment in the sun. In 1954, little-remembered actress Simone Silva tried to outdo Bardot by whipping off her top during a Robert Mitchum photo call. Silva committed suicide three years later in a London hotel. Various gimmicks have been tried to make the media take note of starlets. Diana Dors resorted to wearing a mink bikini and Françoise Deldick entered the Carlton hotel bare-breasted on a horse. Last year, Bardot was finally outdone in the swimwear stakes. Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Borat guise, turned up at Cannes wearing the most extraordinary one-piece green man-thong that wrapped around his shoulders. Borat had shamelessly and ingeniously turned the iconography of Cannes on its head.

One of the most notable features of Cannes' history is the longevity of those who organise the festival. The top job at Cannes is that of the artistic director in charge of film selection. It's a job that the holders of the position struggle to give up. In the formative years of the festival the selection was left to countries to nominate films that they wanted to be shown in competition. The controversies occurred if Cannes was seen to have favoured more nations on one side of the Iron Curtain than the other. Robert Favre Le Bret wielded his influence for 43 years, with Maurice Bessy taking a supporting role even after he got the top job. Gilles Jacob took on the role for 25 years, and although he took on the title of president, handing the artistic delegate job to Thierry Frémaux, his influence is such that at the recent press conference announcing the films in competition this year, it was Jacob's quotes that were used by the media around the world.

The power of the festival to shape the film agenda for the year has made Jacob one of the most powerful figures in cinema. Frémaux has now started to make his own mark and Cannes has recently started to look further afield and choose more films from Asia. The job has become increasingly difficult, as Chris Darke and Kieron Corless point out in their forthcoming book Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival: where once the festival director would have to choose the 20 or so films in competition from a long-list of 500, that number is now well over 1,500. The final selection is a cloak-and-dagger affair, with directors kept in the dark until the very last moment. Mike Leigh was led to believe that his Vera Drake was a shoo-in to be shown at Cannes until only a few days before the selection announcement took place.

If 1968 was a blow for artistic integrity, 1983 was the year capitalism took an iron grip on the festival. Cannes has been transformed by the opening of the purpose-built Palais des Festivals. Nicknamed "Le Bunker", the building had enabled the Cannes market to become the most important place to buy and sell films each year. The festival is now dominated by delegates and individuals selling scripts and showing trailers and films that are not in competition. Make no mistake, despite all the talk of glamour and film selections, the market is the reason why leading players in the film industry deign to show their faces at the festival. It is the growth of the market that has ensured that Cannes remains first among equals.

It says everything about Cannes that, when looking back over the past 60 years, the films themselves are mostly in the background. The top prize at Cannes is the Palme d'Or and it is part of the legend of Cannes that the jury will choose a film that will cause uproar and disagreement among those attending the festival. It seems that the organisers, from the selection of films to the giving out of prizes, love to court controversy. In 1989, Spike Lee, bewildered by the decision of the Wim Wenders jury to award the Palme d'Or to Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape over his own Do the Right Thing, declared: "I have a Louisville Slugger [baseball bat] with Wim Wenders' name on it." Yet such is the expectation that the jury will go against the grain and choose films for its top prizes directed by the Dardenne brothers and the Bruno Dumonts of this world, rather than a Pedro Almodovar, that most just shake their head in a moment of disbelief when the awards are announced, and pretty soon after hardly anyone remembers what won and when.

There have been a few exceptions when the awarding of the top prize has been memorable. In 2004, Quentin Tarantino's jury gave the Palme d'Or to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in a move widely seen as an effort to influence the American presidential election that was to take place later in that year. Back in 1961, the top prize had been given to Luis Buñuel's Viridiana and the Vatican made representations to the Spanish government about the offence the movie caused. The Spanish delegation at Cannes were summarily dismissed by the Spanish government and the press in Spain were banned from referring to the film. A year earlier, when La Dolce Vita took the top prize, it was seen as a one-fingered salute to the Italians who had booed and spat at director Federico Fellini when the film had premiered in Milan.

Cannes can also make or break a film. Perhaps the greatest screening in its history was the showing of the work-in-progress print of Apocalypse Now. It was the first time that Cannes had showed an unfinished work and stories about behind-the-scenes problems on the production of the film had become legendary. The world was waiting for Francis Ford Coppola to fall flat on his face after the Godfather films; instead, the sound of helicopters on the surround sound systems herded in a masterpiece. In total contrast, the most anticipated screening at Cannes last year was Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, the second film from the director of cult favourite Donnie Darko. The film bombed and Kelly, it has been rumoured, has been spending the last year re-editing the film. Cannes, despite the image of glamour that it has spent 60 years cultivating, can also be the cruellest place on earth. That, though, is a major part of the festival's magic.

Independent films features movie trailers, film festivals, film reviews, and independent film resources on filmmaking for independent filmmakers. http://www.independentfilms.org

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