Life, etc

The grand paradox of Cannes

By Emilie Gambade 27 May 2013

The International Film Festival held in Cannes every May is a complex event: on one side, it promotes cinematic projects in their purest artistic form, praising independent films that are usually banished from the blockbusters’ circuit. On the other side, it boasts at the presence of Hollywood stars and devotes its cameras, flashes and grand staircase to celebrities flocking to the Riviera for twelve days of utter glamour. EMILIE GAMBADE looks at yet another French paradox.

The 66th Festival de Cannes closed its annual competition with the crowning on Sunday of Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, already the most talked-about-movie of the selection for its captivating sex scenes, symbol of an obsessive and sensual passion between the two heroines.

Watch: The stars of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Léa Seydoux & Adèle Exarchopoulos

The Grand Prix went to the Coen brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis, while Amat Escalante won Best Director for his film Heli, a violent depiction of Mexico. Bruce Dern was awarded Best Actor for his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Bérénice Béjo received the Best Actress prize for her role in The Past by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. The Jury Prize went to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son, and the Caméra d’Or for a First Film was given to Ilo ilo by Singaporean Anthony Chen.

Born in September 1946, the Festival is an impressive affair. It competes with the Mostra of Venice and the Berlinale, aiming at encouraging “the development of the art of filmmaking in all its forms.”

Every year, 200 square metres of crimson carpet are rolled out and replaced for every projection, about two to three times a day. A poster of 250 square metres, the official image of the festival, is installed on the pediment of the Palais – this year a black and white picture of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

In total over 12,000 professionals and 4,000 journalists converge in the Mediterranean city to review the films in competition or watch celebrities from around the world trample the red carpet and walk up the twenty-four stairs leading to the entrance of the Palais des Festivals. The population of Cannes triples during the twelve days of the event, and a myriad of floor-sweeping evening gowns and as many memorable parties, make for a festival that turns the seaside town into the Riviera’s Cinderella.

In the 1950s, Cannes matured its status of cinema’s little chérie: the selection was already famous for its diversity, and international and local stars enjoyed some time on the Croisette, in one of the prestigious palaces of the town or indolently resting on a yacht cruising in the bay. Alain Delon, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, making her unforgettable debuts at Cannes in 1953, posing on the beach in her tiny bikini with Kirk Douglas, walked the streets freely, mixing with the local crowd.

The festival was accessible, or so it looked, and is still, today, in spite of being very much reserved to professionals from the movie industry, dubbed ‘the people’s festival.’ For this year’s event, the city, with the blessing of the Warner Bros, organised a grand party for its 800 inhabitants: set under a large tent, with a roaring twenties décor as a backdrop, a ball welcomed all the residents in an ambiance très Gatsby-chic.

General Delegate Thierry Frémaux recalls: “Cannes belongs to each and every one of us who, year after year, from wherever we are and in our own individual way, contributes towards creating it step by step. (…) Diversity can only enrich it. That’s what makes the Festival de Cannes our festival.”

The festival is also famous for its matchless political, social or vanity controversies that defined its reputation as an often unpredictable and untameable event. On the long list of polemics, the cancellation of the event in May 1968 after students took over the Palais, supported by Truffaut, Godard, or Polanski. Also memorable, the entire row of photographers who deliberately ignored French actress Isabelle Adjani in 1983 when she stepped on the red carpet, because she carefully avoided them the days prior to the screening of her movie. Placing their cameras on the floor, they turned their back to the actress, leaving her in the hollowness of a red carpet gone silent. In 1987, French director Maurice Pialat booed by the audience after the screening of his movie Under the Sun of Satan replies to the critics with a notable: “If you don’t like me, I don’t like you either.”

Beyond the controversies, the curious combination between a glamour à la Hollywood and a selection voluntarily arty, avant-garde and independent, the festival is a symbol of what the French call “l’exception culturelle,” a contentious concept changed in 2005 into “cultural diversity.”  The idea is to protect a country’s cultural market – audiovisual, design or Haute Couture, to name but a few – against the potential dangers of globalisation. Irrespective of the pros and cons of such a concept, translated into the Festival selection, it means a unique approach to movie making, where cultural originality prevails.

The focus to support artistic diversity often shone a light on different and daring movies that might have been ignored otherwise. In 2010, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or with his movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, leaving the world speechless both because of his unpronounceable name and his strange, esoteric fable. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, When Father was Away on Business and Underground by Emir Kusturica, or Wong Kar-Wai are few examples of directors who benefited from their selection at the Festival.

No matter the critics who say that Cannes has lost its lustre, bowing in front of the sponsors and flirting with promotional endeavours, it carries its paradox like a beautiful belle. On one side, it fights for cultural diversity, singing the praises of different and original movies while on the other, it flatters Hollywood with a red carpet and hotel suites designed for its prestigious stars. The crisscross of low-key players from the movie industry with high profile celebrities, the zigzags between art films and blockbusters, the interweaving of the movie intelligentsia and wannabe pin-ups is Cannes’ signature.

Jean Cocteau once defined the Festival as “an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what would the world be if people could make direct contact with one another and speak the same language.” Cannes is not an apolitical no-man’s-land but every year, it tries hard to bring the utopia to life. DM

Photo: Director Abdellatif Kechiche (C) poses with actresses Lea Seydoux (L) and Adele Exarchopoulos (R) during a photocall after he received the Palme d’Or award for the film “La Vie D’Adele” at the closing ceremony of the 66th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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