Did you know that the Palme d’Or was called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film between 1939 and 1954, and then again from 1964 to 1974? You did? OK. Well, back at home base, Write out of L.A., I've been busting my guts to dig out 70 worthy winners (of not just the Palme d'Or, I might add) to celebrate the #Cannes Film Festival turning 70 this year. Many of the popular winners of the Golden Palm you all know: Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now — as well as some you have not likely even heard of — The Working Class Goes to Heaven, Under the Sun of Satan, Underground. And that's not your fault (probably).
Coverage of such diverse motion pictures is limited in mainstream film culture. That's where I come in, shining a bright light on some of the exceptional winners and memories from the prestigious festival, the venue to which many of the year's best films are first shown. The following choices and stories (just some of my favorites) are all worthy mentions you ought to look out for — some you'll know, some you are likely discovering for the first time.
10. The Very First Cannes Winner For Best Actress
Let’s start, then, in 1946 by applauding the brilliant Best Actress winner Michèle Morgan in La Symphonie pastorale, who plays a blind woman who finds herself in the hands of a potential romance, only to later discover how an affliction change can also alter they way you see (pun not intended) the world around you as well as influence your feelings with this brand new outlook (again, no pun intended). The heart wants what it wants, it seems. We sadly lost Morgan late last year (she was 96), so this entry is especially poignant.
9. The French New Wave Has Arrived On The Riviera
At the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, French filmmaker François Truffaut was nowhere to be seen. Truth is, he was not allowed to attend that year as a result of him verbally lashing out at the competition as an institution. I won’t say he had the last laugh, but the very next year his debut feature film Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) won over audiences at Cannes, rewarding Truffaut with the Best Director prize. Film politics are fickle, but what a victory for cinema that was. French cinema catapulted and Truffaut’s immediate success paved the way for native big mouth Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle.
8. The Rise Of Polish Cinema Earns Its Place In Cannes
At Cannes 1961, Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels) won the Special Jury Prize. It's a remarkably affecting film achievement, making full use of the talent and techniques of its time to make a genuinely eerie, compelling drama that gets under the skin.
At the core of the 17th century Polish tale is the heavy theme of demonic possession — a priest assigned to a local village to investigate a convent of nuns clearly marked by evil. Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, this is an assured and unrelenting motion picture, with stunning photography, writing and acting.
7. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg Makes Musicals The Winner
Harmoniously and heart-rendingly written and directed by Jacques Demy, with the music written by Michel Legrand, romance Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is a rare thing — a musical that delivers every line of dialogue through song, without coming across as saccharine, awkward or unaffecting. The film’s leads Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo light up the screen, the stellar photography and the full use of color fortifies the whole affair with a true-to-the-heart radiance and remorse.
The film took the Palme d’Or (then renamed "Grand Prix International du Festival"), but with only four Academy Award nominations, the film is sinfully under-rewarded, especially given the huge success of future ventures that were heavily inspired by this. You’re very welcome, Damien Chazell.
6. Poverty-Stricken Unknowns In Italy Earn Golden Palm In Cannes
Portraying a part of history he had a certain longing for, as well as carefully unwrapping the stories of his own descendants, Ermanno Olmi directed and wrote L’Albero degli zoccoli (The Tree with the Wooden Clogs), something of a self-declared interpretation of late-19th century Lombard peasant life in Northern Italy (by non-acting folk no less).
Like a museum of a poor farming community, some may believe there’s little interest in strolling around an historical recreation, but the film’s purity and rawness is unavoidably touching and engaging. Olmi walked off with the Palme d’Or in 1978, as well as the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.
5. Hungarian Mephisto Adds To The Radical Range Of Screenplay Winners
The Prix du scénario (screenplay) has offered an impressive, varied selection of victors. In fact, a prize was not even awarded for nearly half the years it existed. Also winning the FIPRESCI Prize as well as screenplay in 1981, István Szabó‘s Mephisto is an exhausting obsession movie.
The depiction of the rise of the Nazi party, as well as the protagonist having an affair with a mixed race woman, were a big deal. What does scream louder than anything else is that this is a movie about acting (however deeply you want to look into that as a social theme), with the incredible lead performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Watch it with Cabaret; you decide the order.
4. The Dardenne Brothers Start Their Regular Reign In Cannes
Overwhelmed with joy when accepting the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1999, Émilie Dequenne is simply perfect as the struggling title character in Rosetta. The 17-year-old, who lives in a caravan with her wilting mother, is self-sufficient, determined and somewhat uncompromising. Always on the move, Rosetta appears to be in every frame of the movie, where the social hardship magicians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne get right in her personal space or peer at her around corners. It’s the type of raw, candid, but utterly effective filmmaking that makes you wonder about how such a portrayal of reality can be so compelling. The movie’s ultimate impact is far greater than any words here used to try and describe it.
3. Gus Van Sant Goes Back To His Indie Roots
With Gus Van Sant you never really know what you are going to get. He has hit indie heights, competed at the Oscars, but also remade a classic that ought to have been left alone. However, with his 2003 film Elephant — winning the Palme d’Or and Best Director — Van Sant crafted a small wonder. Utilizing non-actors to depict a grounded, untainted Columbine-esque high school shooting drama, the filmmaker aligned a fresh, unflinching style of craft without glorifying the violence or disrespecting events of a very similar nature. Beneath the ensuing menace there’s also a raw, refined portrayal of teenage lives — girls self-vomit in unison, a declared first kiss, and likely the most poignant moment: a boy cries, getting a kiss on the cheek rather than judgement.
2. Remarkable Romanian Cinema Continues To Conquer Cannes
A screenplay prize for Beyond the Hills at Cannes in 2012, and Best Director last year for Graduation, Cristian Mungiu took the Palme d’Or for his brilliantly bleak 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in 2007. Mungiu is not afraid to be ruthless and blatant as his characters engage in extremely sensitive circumstances as well as blunt, discrete conversations.
The plot focusing around an illegal abortion performed in a hotel room, and the rich, fine-tuned dialogue that carries it, is all handled with as much genuine recklessness as one would expect given the situation. Unsettling as it is magnetic, it’s an astonishing film achievement, worth every ounce of its weight in gold, and not a drop of cinema is wasted.
1. Splendid Kirsten Dunst Saves Melancholia From Lars Von Trier's Slurs
Lars von Trier excels when it comes to filmmaking, but his unfiltered mouth often dents his appeal. His 2011 film Melancholia is a master stroke in writing, acting, directing and — somewhat to von Trier — personal journey. His leading lady, Kirsten Dunst, is incredible here, speaking every callous and impulsive line with such truth that I believed her. Every movement on her face tells a story or a feeling, a longing to be away or alone (given, its her wedding, but also end of the world is imminent).
At Cannes, it was a shame that an actress of such high regard and class had to endure von Trier’s press conference ramble regarding his German heritage that quickly morphed into irresponsible remarks about Jews, Nazis and an empathy towards Adolf Hitler. The festival officials labeled him “persona non grata,” that is to say he was thrown out of the festival. On the flip side, Dunst deservedly won the Best Actress prize.
Do you have any memories from Cannes? Any favorites movies or moments? Have you ever been to the festival itself?