It opened yesterday. One day, when I’m film critic for a national paper (I’ll still be a priest – surely you can write a review in a couple of hours on your day off), I’ll get to the Cannes Film Festival with an expense account and a press pass. But not this year.
Here is my festival career to date:
- 1987, Venice. I was a student travelling round Italy and the festival happened to be in full swing when I arrived. We got tickets to an obscure and very boring film by Ermano Olmi (can anyone help with the title?). But it was such a thrill just to be there, and to see a film outside on a balmy Venetian evening.
- 2002, Cambridge. Spellbound. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen – about spelling competitions in the States.
- 2007, London. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild in Leicester Square.
Pretty lame really, but as I say, I’m just waiting for that call from a national paper…
Sukhdev Sandhu gives the history and describes some of the excitement:
Ever since 1946, when a casino was converted into an 850-seater movie theatre, Cannes has helped to define, reward and incubate important cinematic movements. When, at that first festival, it awarded a top prize to Roberto Rossellini for Rome, Open City, it effectively drew the world’s attention to the neo-realist aesthetic that would go on to inspire and influence the likes of Satyajit Ray, Iranian geniuses Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and much-feted contemporary American directors such as Kelly (Old Joy) Reichardt.
In the late Fifties, the reception it gave to early films by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard made the French Nouvelle Vague internationally famous and changed the viewing habits of a generation of young filmgoers. But it didn’t just champion new talents; it honoured the work of directors Luis Buñuel and Orson Welles who had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.
A decade later, in 1968, when Truffaut, backed by many other judges, decided to protest against the government-backed dismissal of Henri Langlois as head of the French Cinémathèque and to support student demonstrations across the country, it stoked fierce debates about the relationship between art and politics.
Throughout the Seventies, Cannes jurors backed American directors such as Altman, Scorsese and Coppola who, sometimes in the face of Hollywood hostility, were trying to introduce grittier directorial visions into the studio system. Over the following decades, they also championed maverick spirits such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and, in 1989, an earnest unknown called Steven Soderbergh.
In recent years, even though Cannes has played an important part in promoting cinema from the Middle East, Asia and even the Arctic Circle, it has become increasingly common to deride the festival for becoming a trade fair, a mere marketplace. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro served as a juror in 1994 and recalls: “People would often ask me – in the elevator, in the library, at the bar – they’d say, ‘So are you selling or are you buying?’ If I said, ‘No, I’m a jury member’ their face would just go blank “
Of course, Cannes is about business. Cinema itself is an unstable and seductive marriage of art and commerce, aesthetics and entrepreneurialism. Cannes and Hollywood, though they each claim to represent different outlooks – the former positions itself against the crass globalism of the latter, while the latter derides the elitism of the former – need each other: Hollywood gives Cannes star power and global reach; Cannes gives Hollywood class and an intellectual fillip.
There are those who argue that Cannes has become less important since the rise in the number of film festivals. Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam and Pusan are all major players. But Cannes is not only still the grandest, it upholds the same values as its rivals: a commitment to directors rather than genres, to creating a non-national platform for filmmakers, to showcasing a challenging work.