Sixty (and still) something

The festival has changed through time, but its impact never falters

Many have tried to sum up the legendary Festival de Cannes succinctly, but Woody Allen's comment on his first visit to Cannes in 2003 is as good as any.

"This is a detour from reality," Allen said at an intimate lunch in his honor at the Carlton Beach restaurant. Allen took in the vast Mediterranean scene -- luxurious yachts floating lazily and beautiful bodies stretched out under fashionable umbrellas. "I wonder if normal people like nurses, teachers and cab drivers can relate to this," he mused.

Probably not. But Cannes remains the sine qua non of the international movie business. A film festival, market, hype machine and gathering place for dealmaking and schmoozing on a grand scale, the event has introduced the movie world to some of its biggest and best-known actors and auteurs. The 2007 edition marks the festival's 60th anniversary. So as the festival gets under way, let's take a quick look back in time to reflect on how Cannes has changed.

This week, hotels along the Croisette are getting plastered with huge and dubious billboards for questionable films as the town's population of some 70,000 swells by 40,000 film fans, 4,000 reporters and legions of paparazzi that force the pet-loving French to carry their pooches in Louis Vuitton pouches to keep them from getting trampled.

The scene was quite different in 1939 when the Festival du Film was conceived as an alternative to Mussolini's Fascist-influenced Venice Film Festival. France's inventor of cinema, Louis Lumiere, was ready to preside, and Cannes resident painter Jean Gabriel Domergue designed the poster. But the event, scheduled for a Sept. 1 opening, was stopped in its tracks. World War II broke out the following day. The festival eventually made its bow in 1946, screening such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious," Roberto Rossellini's "Open City," David Lean's "Brief Encounter" and Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bete."

The festival was interrupted again in 1948 and 1950 due to budgetary restraints, but it did draw the likes of Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Norma Shearer and Errol Flynn in 1949. In 1951, the festival was moved to its spring slot and attracted more tourists and socialites than die-hard film buffs. The best picture award was only officially dubbed the Palme d'Or in 1955.

When you look back on those early years in the '50s, what comes to mind are the iconic photographs of Brigitte Bardot in her bikini and French starlet Simone Silva dropping her top while clutching a surprised Robert Mitchum on the beach. Or the fairy tale of 1956 when the festival was scheduled in April to accommodate visitors attending Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainier. (The couple met the previous year when Kelly visited Cannes as an official American representative.) What gets remembered less are the pictures themselves.

Some of the festival's winning films from the early years seem strange to today's eyes. Delbert Mann's "Marty," a remake of a telefilm by an undistinguished American director, or the watery documentary "The Silent World" by oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau took home prizes. Naturally, Welles -- beloved by the French -- snared the prize (in 1952), but a Hollywood film like William Wyler's 1957 winner, "Friendly Persuasion," probably would not screen In Competition today.

Things changed in the '60s -- indeed, immediately so, with wins by such great European directors as Federico Fellini ("La Dolce Vita") in 1960, Luis Bunuel ("Viridiana") in 1961 and Luchino Visconti ("The Leopard") in 1963.

Other winners that decade, such as Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964), Richard Lester's "The Knack ... and How to Get It" (1965), Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" (1967) and Lindsay Anderson's "If ..." (1969), show a definite influence of swingin' London and Anglo-American genre moviemaking.

The late '60s and '70s ushered in America's new golden boys who ruled the Riviera, filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack. Paris-based Pierre Rissient, active in the Cannes scene since 1964, recalls the yesteryears of Hollywood in Cannes. "It was a time of discovery," says Rissient, who has donned many berets from film critic to press attache. There was a rapport between filmmaker and film critic, he notes. Everyone would hang out at places like La Mere Besson, an intimate bistro popular with festgoers.

"Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson would walk down the Croisette and talk to people, which is not possible today," he says. Redford first hitchhiked to Cannes when he was a student at Beaux Arts in Paris. Twenty years later, he made a splash at the festival starring in "Jeremiah Johnson." Warner Bros. did not have faith in the film, but the successful Cannes launch made it a cult hit.

Coppola, who first visited the Cannes market with his 1966 film "You Are a Big Boy Now," returned with "The Conversation" (1974) and "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Because it was still a work in progress, much anticipation surrounded the screening of "Apocalypse." Coppola's team was uncertain of the audience response, so no customary celebratory party was scheduled. Yet the premiere was a resounding success.

The euphoria now created begged for a party. Although it was a tough call to find a restaurant at the last minute, the group did manage to find one up in Le Suquet that could accommodate about 40 people. In their book "Hollywood on the Riviera," Cari Beauchamp and Henry Behar recall that the evening ended with a high note when a woman diner who had attended the screening approached the filmmaker and in her admiration of the film picked up the tab for the entire meal.

Europeans reasserted themselves in the 1980s -- Andrezej Wajda ("Man of Iron" in 1981), Costa-Gavras ("Missing" in 1982), Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas" in 1984), Emir Kusturica ("When Father Was Away on Business" in 1985), Roland Joffe ("The Mission" in 1986), Maurice Pialat ("Under Satan's Sun" in 1987) and Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror" in 1988).

This all changed when Steven Soderbergh took Cannes by storm when his low-budget "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," won the Palme d'Or in 1989. The 1990s saw the indie spirit soar with the arrival of such filmmakers as David Lynch ("Wild at Heart" in 1990), the Coen brothers ("Barton Fink" in 1991) and Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction" in 1994). The new millennium heralded new technology when Lars von Trier's digitally shot "Dancer in the Dark" waltzed away with Palme d'Or at the 2000 award ceremony.

Another major shift has occurred in the past decade for the formerly Euro- and Anglo-centric festival. Although Chinese and Japanese cinema has always been a part of the festival, now you see films from Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Mongolia. In 2004, the festival made history by selecting six Asian films among a lineup of 19 In Competition. The same year, four leading awards were given to Asian actors and filmmakers.

Films such as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) command standing ovations and cheers of "bravo maestro." To maximize Asian visibility, in recent years, film representatives from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan have joined the party bandwagon in hosting lavish parties on the Croisette. And last year, Wong Kar Wai, long a Cannes favorite, presided over the Competition jury.

Since the high-water mark of 2002 -- a great year that saw "The Pianist," "Divine Intervention," "The Man Without a Past," "Russian Ark," "10" and "About Schmidt" screen In Competition -- the fest has meandered. Critics have searched the cinematic tea leaves in vain for themes and trends.

For the 60th anniversary, programmers have chosen films from a mix of veterans and relative newcomers. Yanks are in, Asians noticeably absent. In a replay of the '90s, Tarantino and the Coens are back, and Soderbergh is represented Out of Competition. So are returning Palme d'Or winners Gus Van Sant (In Competition) and Michael Moore (Out of Competition). So there is an anticipatory sense that the Festival de Cannes is waiting for its next big discovery. How nice if it were to coincide with its 60th birthday party.

Mira Advani contributed to this report.