Cannes You Dig It? The Times When Cannes Was A Bit Too Cannes
No other film festival is as prestigious as Cannes. For a fortnight every May, the world’s film-oriented media, the film industry and countless directors – both good and bad – descend on the small French Riviera town for an exercise in cinematic excess, both on the screen and at countless glamorous parties. Critically acclaimed directors vie for a place in the main competition which will award one winner with the coveted Palme d’Or and greater hope of commercial success.
Most instalments of the festivals also deliver their fair share of controversies. When Danish auteur Lars von Trier is present, his press conferences tend to be as outrageous as his films. (Sometimes more so, as was evident in 2011 with his misjudged comments regarding Hitler at the press conference following the premiere of Melancholia.)
Ahead of their Time
Some films that premiere at Cannes are just ahead of the curve, upsetting audiences and critics alike with their radical approach to cinema. The most notable example of a film whose fortunes have changed dramatically over time is Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
It premiered at the 1960 festival, where it competed against La Dolce Vita. Federico Fellini’s takedown of bourgeois Italian life, highlighting social and economic inequality in the country’s capital, walked away with the Palme d’Or, but the jury awarded Antonioni’s film with the Grand Prix. It was a controversial decision for a film whose approach to narrative, duration and form looked towards a style that would become increasing prevalent in cinema, today earning its own genre category – ‘Slow Cinema’.
30 years later, David Lynch attracted boos for his ultra-violent road movie-cum-noir fantasy Wild at Heart. But the audience’s reaction to that film was nothing compared to the reception for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
If the second series of the cult TV hit had lost its offbeat edge, Lynch’s big-screen prequel transformed small town life into a primal, terrifying nightmare – a world in which even Blue Velvet’s Frank (Dennis Hopper) might have feared to tread. But its strangeness was too much for some. More recently, with Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost’s return to Twin Peaks – particularly the jaw-dropping eighth episode – Fire Walk with Me now appears inspired and daring in its representation of the decay that lies beneath the surface of everyday life.
The Last One was Great, but…
Cannes is littered with films by directors whose previous feature was acclaimed but whose return to the Croisette prompted reactions that ranged from disappointment to outrage. Nicolas Winding Refn’s cinema has always been visceral. That was part of the attraction of Drive (2012). The film’s pulpy origins (it was adapted from literary crime writer James Sallis’ taut, economic 2005 novel) blended perfectly with its moments of extreme violence. And Ryan Gosling’s smouldering performance perfectly complimented the thriller’s moody tone.
So, when it was announced that the star and director were reuniting for Only God Forgives, an existential revenge thriller set in Bangkok, with a bleach blonde Kristin Scott Thomas also starring as a raging matriarch, it seemed like the recipe for a perfect film. However, Refn’s favouring existential angst over any resemblance of conventional narrative left many feeling robbed, as evinced by the boos that followed the film’s premiere.
Those reactions paled when compared with the opprobrium that rained down on Southland Tales (2006), Richard Kelly’s follow-up to his cult hit Donnie Darko (2001), or The Brown Bunny (2003), actor-turned-director (and general renaissance man) Vincent Gallo’s follow up to Buffalo 66 (1998). If the latter film was a carefully crafted road movie with homages to David Lynch and Yasujiro Ozu, The Brown Bunny was an incoherent mess. That said, at least it was a mess that many people had the chance to see thanks to a post-Cannes release.
Johnny Depp’s The Brave has rarely seen the light of day – or a projector – since it premiered without acclaim in 1997.
Cannes also features films that have attracted controversy, either because of their content, or the hoopla that surrounds their premiere – a constant that the festival revels in. In 1968, it was Cannes itself that became the subject of controversy. A group of directors, led by Jean-Luc Godard, inspired by the events unfolding in Paris, successfully brought the festival to a close. It’s one of the key moments in Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, which premiered in Cannes last year and opens this week.
Other controversies have tended to surround a film’s content or themes. David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) was seen by many as a bold adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel. But thanks to the scandal-mongering presence at the festival of the then Conservative MP and Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley, it became a key film in the battle over film censorship in the UK. (It subsequently became clear that the politician’s claims were unfounded – she hadn’t even seen the film.) At one point, local councils around the UK weighed in. In central London, audiences wishing to watch the film only had to cross the road from Westminster, where the film was banned, to Camden, where it wasn’t.
Steven Spielberg’s jury awarded Blue is the Warmest Colour the Palme d’Or at the 2013 festival, but the film was soon mired in controversy when its two female stars railed against director Abdellatif Kechiche for the way he directed them, particularly during the extended sex scene. Matters were worsened when Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel upon which the film was based, also weighed in against him.
Lars von Trier is another director who has been criticised for the way he works with actors, but in the case of Antichrist, people seemed more divided over the presence of a talking Fox. As for Kaboom, Greg Araki’s earlier, violent The Doom Generation (1995) featured a scene in which a decapitated head lands on a tray of fast food, so the director’s tale of sexualised aliens invading a college campus was, by comparison, a more subtle affair.
Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built looks set to be Cannes 2018’s controversial entry. Whether the director will be allowed to attend his own press conference has yet to be confirmed. But as this is Cannes, which thrives on outrage, it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping him.
The new Curzon12 collection, WTF Cannes is now available on Curzon Home Cinema, giving Curzon members 12 films to watch at home completely free.