Cannes at 60: Gods and monsters

With new heroes and legends emerging every year, the Festival de Cannes has become the Olympics of cinema.

For as long as there has been a Festival de Cannes, critics and commentators have complained about everything from the films in the Official Selection ("The best stuff screened Out of Competition!") to some of the juries' questionable prizewinners. Cannes provides an annual opportunity to gripe about esoteric movies that no one outside the festival circuit will ever see -- and to tsk-tsk about how Hollywood studios gobble up the bulk of the international press coverage with heavily stage-managed publicity blitzkriegs.

Yet each May, all those people who insist that Cannes has become irrelevant either show up at the Palais des Festivals for screenings or read daily reports in the trades and on blogs. For two weeks, the attention of the movie industry is trained on the south of France, watching new legends and new heroes emerge. Cannes has become the Olympics of cinema.

It's an event watched worldwide, and it's been, for 60 editions now, a force for reconciliation among nations and cultures. That's a job that hasn't always been easy -- especially since the festival itself was born out of a political dispute.

In 1938, the jury at the Venice Film Festival -- the only entity of its kind at the time -- allegedly bowed to pressure from the Fascists and ignored Jean Renoir's beloved "The Grand Illusion" in favor of Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia." A year later, the outraged French organized the first Festival de Cannes, which closed prematurely (after a single screening of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") when the Nazis invaded Poland. After the war, Cannes rose again in 1946, appropriately featuring Roberto Rossellini's "Rome: Open City," a film about what allegiance to dictators had done to Italy.

In the years to come, Cannes featured films that spoke to what was going on in the post-World War II world, while also mirroring those changes. As Europe rebuilt, dividing along ideological lines, American critics and filmmakers returned to Cannes year after year and faced a widely varying reception. In the early going, Hollywood viewed the festival mostly as an opportunity to promote its frothiest product in newly open markets, and the industry was shocked to find itself treated dismissively by the locals.

The situation came to a head in 1954, when the American selection committee tried to submit the multiple-Oscar-winning "From Here to Eternity" into Competition only to be rejected by festival director Robert Favre Le Bret. A year later, "Marty" won the newly dubbed "Palme d'Or" (previously the "Grand Prix"), marking the only time to date that a movie has won both the Palme d'Or and an Academy Award for best picture. Two years after that, "Friendly Persuasion" won the Palme, after which it took 13 years for another American film to win Cannes' top prize.

In the meantime, the Cold War raged. Throughout the 1950s, while American movies were filtered through a government agency to assure that nothing subversive slipped out, the better financed Soviet arts councils picked striking films that showed off socialism and supported them with lovingly produced publicity materials. The American press was up in arms in 1953, when Cannes gave its top prize to Henri-Georges Clouzot's anti-capitalist "The Wages of Fear" and were outraged again in 1958, when the jury honored the Soviet-produced "The Cranes Are Flying."

Even during the triumph of "Persuasion," European critics made sure to note that its real author, Michael Wilson, had been kept out of the credits by the blacklist.

The history of the Cannes festival -- or at least the history of the American involvement with the festival -- is one of sophistication in matters of politics, sex and social justice straining against Hollywood's attempts to simplify or ignore them. Cannes was famously put on the cultural map in 1954, when would-be starlet Simone Silva dropped her bikini top in front of Robert Mitchum and an assembled throng of photographers. For decades, hardly a Cannes story got filed that didn't mention starlets in swimsuits, baring their breasts for a shot at stardom, or the way the Marche du Film -- the bustling marketplace that's been an official part of the festival since 1961 -- was awash in exploitation movies. And all this while, America's Hays Code-crippled cinema was reduced to mere innuendo.

The aesthetic gap between Hollywood product and the rest of the world became painfully evident in the late 1950s and early '60s, when Cannes was dominated by a succession of national New Waves and their phenomenal vanguard directors, starting with Japan's Akira Kurosawa, Sweden's Ingmar Bergman and Italy's Federico Fellini. France itself got into the act in 1959 with Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," and the next decade would be dominated by France and its closest neighbors, with Palme d'Or honors going to such legendary films as 1960's "La Dolce Vita," 1961's "Viridiana," 1963's "The Leopard," 1964's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and 1966's "Blowup."

A star was born every year, whether it was Sophia Loren, wowing the press with her performance in 1961's "Two Women" (and her glamour on the red carpet), or the ennui-ridden Euro-visions of Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais.

But dominance arguably bred arrogance, leading to what remains one of the most hotly debated incidents in Cannes history. In 1968, in response to the worker and student strikes sweeping France -- and specifically in response to the government's removal of the popular Henri Langlois as the head of Paris' Cinematheque -- Truffaut, Godard and a contingent of directors and actors stormed the Palais and stopped the festival. (Want to win a cinephile bar bet? The last movie that screened at Cannes before the strike was Carlos Saura's 1967 drama "Peppermint Frappe.")

The strikers persuaded the jury, which included Louis Malle and Roman Polanski, to disband, and though the festival eventually resumed, no prizes were given out that year, and sentiment remains split as to whether the Cannes strike was a triumphant moment of grassroots activism or an embarrassing case of a few wunderkinds holding their will above decades of tradition.

Both Malle and Truffaut returned to Cannes in triumph in the early '70s -- with 1971's "Murmur of the Heart" and 1973's "Day for Night," respectively -- and like most Cannes-approved auteurs then and now, they remained unofficially invited to screen whatever they'd most recently completed, whether the selection committee had seen the finished product or not. That automatic invitation policy has led to some awkward moments, like the near-riots among critics shuffling to get into Bernardo Bertolucci's anticipated "Novecento" in 1976, followed by the deflating feeling in the theater when the movie turned out to be fairly plodding.

By the '70s, the Europeans were challenged for supremacy by the ascendant Americans. Robert Altman broke the 13-year American Palme d'Or drought in 1970 with "M*A*S*H*," and throughout the ensuing decade, Cannes hosted coming-out parties for Martin Scorsese (who made waves with "Mean Streets" in 1973, then won the Palme d'Or for 1976's "Taxi Driver") and Francis Ford Coppola (who brought "You're a Big Boy Now" to little fanfare in the late '60s then won the top prize in 1974 with "The Conversation" and again in 1979 with "Apocalypse Now").

Even the architects of the summer blockbuster found early acceptance at Cannes, as George Lucas showed 1971's "THX-1138," and Steven Spielberg wowed the French critics with 1974's "The Sugarland Express."

The Cannes peak for the American "film school brats" came as the decade turned. Coppola's studio-circumventing screening of the work-in-progress "Apocalypse Now" didn't just win an award, it was greeted as a heroic act and transformed years of snarky trade paper speculation on Coppola's folly into a critical resurrection. Three years later, in 1982, Spielberg closed the festival with "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and was so nervous about its reception that he spent most of the screening pacing in his hotel room. Finally, he walked down to the Palais just in time for the ending and was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation. Having perfectly fused commercial filmmaking with artful cinematic expression, Spielberg enjoyed a moment when the whole world loved him -- and loved Hollywood by proxy.

Alas, Cannes love fests for Hollywood were rare after "E.T." Much of the discussion at Cannes in the '80s involved controversy over whether juries were being pressured by the French press and the festival directors to send prizes to local favorites. The matter first arose in 1980, when a rare tie for the Palme d'Or between "All That Jazz" and "Kagemusha" was amended to include Resnais' "My American Uncle" (though technically, the Resnais film was given a Special Jury Prize, accompanied by an announcement that it was to be considered an equivalent award). Boos rang out again when Robert Bresson's "L'Argent" won in 1983 and when Maurice Pialat's "Under the Sun of Satan" took home the Palme d'Or in 1987.

Both were considered more "statement awards" than awards of real merit, and the controversy surrounding their wins might explain why no French director has won the Palme in the past 20 years. (Two-time winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who make movies in France, are by nationality Belgian.)

The rest of the '80s were given over to foreign filmmakers making English-language movies -- such as Costa-Gavras' 1982 drama "Missing" and Wim Wenders' 1984 feature "Paris, Texas," both award winners -- and the rise of American independent cinema. Jim Jarmusch heralded the new age with "Stranger Than Paradise" in 1984, followed by Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986 and Steven Soderbergh's surprise Palme d'Or winner "sex, lies and videotape" in 1989. Soderbergh started a three-year run of Amerindies winning the top prize, with David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" taking it in 1990 and the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" not only winning the Palme d'Or in 1991 but adding unprecedented awards for best director (Joel Coen) and best actor (John Turturro).

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" was the toast of 1994, capping a five-year period during which foreign films and American art house fare were as vibrant as the best of the New Wave era. Every year, Cannes introduced films that audiences worldwide loved, such as 1992's "The Player" and "Strictly Ballroom" and 1994's "To Live" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," all while creating new auteur heroes like Lars von Trier, who proved cantankerous even as early as 1991, when his "Europa" was relegated to a Jury Prize for "technical merit." The director concluded his acceptance speech by staring at jury president Polanski and thanking "the midget."

The tide began to turn in the mid-'90s, starting with 1995, when Emir Kusturica's "Underground" won the Palme d'Or yet had trouble landing a U.S. distributor. That same year featured hard-to-love art films such as "Safe," "Kids" and Jarmusch's spacey "Dead Man." In the ensuing 10 years, most of the reports out of Cannes have had to do with the success of "anti-American" films such as 2003's "Elephant" and 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11," or juries rewarding films that nobody likes or ambitious films like Sofia Coppola's 2006 biopic "Marie Antoinette" getting booed.

The biggest power struggle at Cannes today might be between old guard critics like Roger Ebert -- who've spent decades championing "difficult" films but stumble when it comes to elusive auteurs such as Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai and Tsai Ming-liang -- and the younger crowd that craves extremity, be it the visceral shocks of Gaspar Noe and Takashi Miike or the endurance tests of Bela Tarr and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Still, behind the posturing, what's more important is how exposure to the films of Kiarostami has improved American cineastes' understanding of life in Iran, along with what Kim Ki-duk has revealed about Korea, and Hou and Tsai about Taiwan.

More than 60 years after "Open City" exposed the soul of post-war Italy, and 50 years after Kurosawa helped redeem the reputation of Japan in the eyes of the world, the flowering of new cinematic movements in Brazil, Mexico, Romania and elsewhere is bridging gaps between American sensibilities and those of other cultures. That's the real story of Cannes. It hasn't always been pleasant to tell, and it keeps getting revised every year.