What's this Palme d'Or?
The Palme d’Or is not only the ultimate film festival accolade, it places its recipient in a long line of illustrious filmmakers and films whose status has lived long after their Cannes win.
It’s the prize of film prizes. The Oscar might be better known amongst general audiences, but the Palme d’Or, whose announcement is made on the closing night of the Cannes Film Festival, is the ultimate accolade for international film. And its winners make up an impressive segment of filmmakers who have changed the face of cinema over the last 70 years.
First introduced in 1955 (the previous film of the festival award was known as the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film), the Palme d’Or was replaced by the Grand Prix between 1964-75, but has since become the signature prize within the competition strands. The first Palme d’Or went to Delbert Mann’s blue collar drama Marty. (The first Cannes competition winner, in 1939, was Cecil B. DeMille for Union Pacific.)
The remainder of the 1950s saw a mix of international winners, from Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s marine opus The Silent World (1956) and Hollywood director William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1957) to Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov’s acclaimed The Cranes are Flying and another Frenchman, Marcel Camus with his rhapsodic Black Orpheus (1959).
Cannes is known for controversial awards decisions. In 1960, two Italian directors representing very different styles of filmmaking vied against each other for the top prize. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita presented a dazzling account of Roman life through the eyes of a gossip-mongering journalist. By contrast, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura presented a new kind of cinema that was no less critical of bourgeois life, but whose style was minimalist. The latter film was less than well-received by audiences and critics, and Fellini’s film won, but it presaged the controversies that would rage around awards titles over subsequent decades.
The most famous include Taxi Driver in 1976 (Jury president Tennessee Williams was less than happy with the majority decision to award Martin Scorsese’s bloody opus), Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989 (Spike Lee was apparently apoplectic that Steven Soderbergh’s study of sex and infidelity won out against his coruscating portrait of racism, Do the Right Thing) and Wild at Heart in 1990 (some believed that this film, inferior to David Lynch’s previous drama, was actually awarded to him because Cannes had overlooked Blue Velvet).
The US tops the list as the country with the most Palme d’Or winners. So far, it has taken home 13 awards. France is next with seven, followed by Italy with five, Japan and the UK with four apiece and seven countries with two. Arguably the most exclusive club is the two-time winners. Only eight directors have achieved this feat: Alf Sjöberg (Sweden, 1946 & 1951); Francis Ford Copolla (US, 1974 & 1979); Bille August (Denmark, 1988 & 1992), Emir Kusturica (Serbia, 1985 & 1995); Shohei Imamura (Japan, 1983 & 1997), Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Belgium, 1999 & 2005), Michael Haneke (Austria, 2009 & 2011) and Ken Loach (UK, 2006 & 2016). * Two of these entrants, Ken Loach and the Dardennes, are in the running this year, so could be within a chance of being the first to make it a triple.
As to who will win this year, it’s sometimes helpful to look at the jury. Their tastes can inform which way a decision will sway. The president is Mexican director Alejandro González Iñáritu. He’s accompanied by director-actor Maimouna N’Diaye, actor Elle Fanning, director-writers Kelly Reichardt, Alice Rohrwacher, Robin Campillo, Yorgos Lanthimos, Pawel Pawlikowski and director Enki Bilal. There’s a strong female presence along with two male directors (Lanthimos and Pawlikowski) whose work has centred on female characters. With critical responses to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire placing it high amongst bookies’ favourites, the Belgian filmmaker might become the second woman, after Jane Campion for 1991’s The Piano, to scoop the top prize. Likewise, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite has been highly lauded. And Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You could see the veteran British filmmaker take the stage for a third time with another hugely acclaimed and timely state-of-the-nation drama. Then there’s Quentin Tarantino, whose Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is seen as a major return to form. But with a festival like Cannes, betting on a favourite is no guarantee of guessing the jury’s decision. We’ll just have to wait till the closing ceremony.
To celebrate the announcement of the 2019 Palme d’Or, Curzon Home Cinema has curated a collection of previous winners to enjoy. They include last year’s winner Shoplifters, Michael Haneke’s Amour, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep.
* An even more exclusive club was created in 2013, when Steven Spielberg and his jury decided to award the Palme d’Or to Blue is the Warmest Colour. By that time, the festival stipulated that competition prizes should be shared amongst the various entries, preventing the acting award being shared between the film’s two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Instead, the jury acknowledged the depth of collaboration between the filmmaker and stars by awarding all three the Palme d’Or. Perhaps as a sign of his displeasure at having to share the accolade, director Abdellatif Kechiche sold his award in order to raise money for his next film.