Cannes: The Return

There aren't many days in the year when one film festival or another isn't running at some place in the world. They run the gamut, from experimental and documentary to shorts and animation. And there is a hierarchy to them, particularly as we progress up the cinematic food chain. In the US, Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW) lead the pack. In Asia, there's Busan. In the UK most major cities have their own festivals, from London, Edinburgh and Glasgow to Leeds, Cambridge and Sheffield (whose DocFest remains one of the most important documentary festivals and markets in the non-fiction film calendar).

Locarno, Rotterdam, Venice and Berlin all have major festivals, the latter two arguably standing alongside SXSW, Busan and Sundance as the second tier of international film festivals. But towering over them all is Cannes. For a film to be chosen as a competition title is to guarantee a degree of publicity around the film's screening. But to win the coveted Palme d'Or, the top prize in the main competition strand, pretty much ensures that the chosen film will have widespread distribution, no matter how esoteric its subject or approach.


To look at the history of the festival is to see how cinema has developed over the years since the end of the Second World War. The festival was originally planned to begin at the end of the 1930s. Venice was already up and running, and the French authorities, supported by the UK and US, wanted to create a film festival that would offer an alternative to the Fascist leanings of its Italian counterpart. However, war interrupted the plans and the festival finally saw the light of day in September 1946. After a bumpy start, in 1951 it was moved to spring in order to avoid clashing with Venice, which unfurls in late summer. And through the course of that decade, it gradually gained traction amongst filmmakers to become the preeminent platform for international cinema.

Given the festival's location, along the French Riviera, Cannes also became known for its glamour. Brigitte Bardot's appearance there sealed her iconic status, while other stars cemented their status with an appearance on the Croisette, the promenade that runs alongside the beach in the town and where stars, celebrities and filmmakers arrive to attend screenings.

There are three main categories for awards. The main competition has eight awards (Palme d'Or, Grand prix, Jury Prize, Short Film, Actress, Actor, Director and Screenplay). The Prix Un Certain Regard, introduced in 1978, awards films from younger filmmakers, along with works that offer an alternative or more experimental approach to narrative cinema. Finally, the Camera d'Or, also created in 1978, offers a prize, across all categories, for outstanding cinematography. There are also numerous other prizes given out by individual organisations.

But alongside the acclaim, Cannes has always attracted a modicum of controversy. It was famously closed down in 1968, in direct response to the political upheavals that were unfolding across France and Europe that year. More recently, gender parity has come under scrutiny, with the number of female filmmakers and practitioners criminally underrepresented at the festival. (A case in point - only one filmmaker, Jane Campion with 1993's The Piano, has won the Palme d'Or.) On top of that are the press conferences, which have offered up a slew of faux pas by individuals unwilling to hold their tongue. Most notoriously, Lars von Trier's comments about Hitler during the press conference following a screening of Melancholia resulted in the director being temporarily banned from the festival.

And then there's the screenings themselves. Most of us will have had a moment when we wanted to shout at the screen because a film is so bad. But British reticence may have kept us quiet. It's a trait utterly lacking in Cannes audiences, who have been known to heckle a film if they think it fails to pass muster. David Lynch's Wild at Heart might have won the Palme d'Or in 1991, but that didn't stop audiences from booing the director when he appeared on stage following the film's premiere at the Palais, the main auditorium in Cannes. Likewise, other filmmakers have been known to receive standing ovations that last ten minutes. Such was the case with Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, which placed the filmmaker in the select group of two-time winners. (He had previously won for the 2006 Irish Troubles drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley.) Even the festival judges, who are expected to remain silent on their decisions, have sometimes been known to break ranks. In 1976, after Martin Scorsese was awarded the Palme d'Or for Taxi Driver, Jury President Tennessee Williams made clear his disdain for the film and the level of violence it presented.

But it's the controversies and glamour, as much as the quality of the films screened, which make Cannes such an iconic event. And one that the international film industry revels in.

To celebrate the latest edition of the Cannes, Curzon Home Cinema has curated a selection of films by directors whose latest works are premiering at the festival, from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger the Paradise to the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night.