Though the Cannes Film Festival is undoubtedly the most famous event of its kind, it isn’t the oldest. That honour belongs to Venice. Still, 2017 does mark the 70th edition of Cannes – having been planned but postponed before the Second World War, the festival first took place in September 1946, and thereafter continued every year except 1948 and 1950.
It has changed quite a bit since my first visit in 1987. I missed the following year, but have made it every festival since – meaning that 2017 will be my 30th Cannes. Even by the late 80s, however, Cannes had already changed enormously from its original incarnation as a much smaller event for the high society of the Côte d’Azur, where virtually every movie invited was awarded some sort of prize by a jury made up not of film folk but of writers.
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It began to change around the mid-1950s. Although it was still partly about the glamour and glitz of the stars seen along the Croisette, the festival signalled a more serious approach to the competition by introducing the Palme d’or for an overall winner in 1955. By the turn of the decade, big-hitters such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini – not to mention François Truffaut, with his debut Les Quatre Cents Coups – were featuring among the major prizewinners, while two rival or complementary strands to the main event were set up in the shape of the Critics’ Week (1962) and the Directors’ Fortnight (1969). Sure, this was where Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant could be caught on camera, but it was also now, emphatically, a temple to film both as a business (the market for buyers and sellers had been set up as early as 1959) and as an art form.
It was in order to focus on the latter that I first applied for accreditation, as a critic for Time Out. By that time Cannes’ head honcho Gilles Jacob had added the Un Certain Regard strand to the official selection and the town’s huge new Palais de Festivals – known back then as ‘the Bunker’ – had been built. Happily, the rather more elegant old Palais – now the site of a bland hotel – was still standing for my first couple of festivals – veterans still remember it with affection.
Since then, the festival has simply got bigger and bigger… not so much, mercifully, in terms of the number of films shown (though Jacob’s successor Thierry Frémaux did add the Cannes Classics screenings of restorations in 2004), as in terms of the number of people attending.
Which is why, for all its glamorous allure, Cannes can be a tough 12 days for the press. It’s highly hierarchical, with a colour badge system denoting levels of access. There’s also an awful lot of queueing involved, as one needs to arrive early – and it seems to get earlier each year – to be sure of getting into a screening. And it can be a long day: many of us are sitting waiting for our first screening to begin by around 8am, and emerge from the last of our three, four, maybe five movies at around 9 or 9.30pm. Moreover, you must try to get enough sleep so as not to doze off in the cinemas; you often don’t eat properly until mid-evening; and you really mustn’t forget your umbrella or a hat, lest you get drenched or sunburnt during all those hours spent queueing.
Still, it used to be worse. At least now there are electronic subtitles. For many years, for any movie that wasn’t in English or French, you struggled to follow a flatly intoned translation delivered through uncomfortable earphones – if, that is, you could find the right language and volume on the set, which wasn’t easy. Furthermore, the first one or two visits to the festival can be a trial for anyone; apart from the confusing complexity of the event, novices often feel they’re in the wrong place – indeed, they sometimes are – and that their peers are off somewhere else doing something more important, rewarding or fun.
Still, the event must have its upside, or I shouldn’t have continued turning up for three decades. Firstly, there are the films themselves, expertly projected in (mostly) large and very comfortable auditoria. Notwithstanding the inevitable stinkers and mediocrities, most films have something to recommend them, and the standard is usually high, with most years producing a masterpiece, maybe two.
My memories of the first screenings of films as different as Barton Fink (1991), The Quince Tree Sun (1992), Naked (1993), Sonatine (1993), Three Colours Red (1994), Rosetta (1999), 10 (2002), Amour (2012) or last year’s I, Daniel Blake (let alone of ‘hot tickets’ like Do the Right Thing, Wild at Heart, Crash or Pulp Fiction) are all still very vivid. I recall the tense atmosphere provoked by the warning – the first, apparently, in Cannes’ history – that Funny Games (1997) could prove disturbing; the ‘mixed’ receptions that greeted L’Humanité (1999) and The Brown Bunny (2003); and the massive buzz around films as disparate as Strictly Ballroom (1992), The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and Toni Erdmann (2016).
Where there are films, there are filmmakers. The first interview I ever conducted in Cannes was with Jane Campion; if memory serves, since it was for Sweetie (1989), ie a few years before her great hit with The Piano, I was the only British journalist to interview her. Other memorable one-to-one interviews include one over lunch on the island in the bay with Michael Haneke; the only one-to-one David Lynch gave for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (sadly, he didn’t prove to be very articulate); my first encounter with Gary Oldman to discuss his directorial debut Nil by Mouth; and, out at the fabled Hôtel du Cap, conversations with Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood – the latter for Sight & Sound and lasting around 90 minutes.
When the legendary, now long-gone bar and brasserie Le Petit Carlton was still the late-night drinking spot of choice, that was a good place to bump into people like Steven Soderbergh or Aki Kaurismäki; more recently the Petit Majestic and the terrace of the Grand Hotel attracted the crowds, though I gave up on them some years ago. The same with the parties given to promote the competition films, which are often overly crowded and noisy, with seemingly endless queues for drinks and the toilets. I had my fill of ‘hot tickets’ on battleships and yachts, at ‘chateaux’ that were nothing of the sort, at villas up in the hills (hard to get back from!). It’s not just Cannes that’s changed, it’s those of us who turn up year after year. We get older, if not wiser.
Some things seem unlikely ever to change, however. First, there is the tired selection of classic jazz tracks that plays before the morning and evening press screenings. Second, there is the Festival de Cannes trailer that plays before each and every film in the official section. A soothing affair, it sweeps up, via steps covered in a red carpet, from the depths of the Med to a golden palm floating in a starry sky, all to the tinkling accompaniment of ‘The Aquarium’ from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.
Finally – and this follows immediately on from the jazz and the trailer at a good number of evening press screenings each year – someone hollers the name ‘Raoul!’, as if they were calling in the dark to a late arrival unable to find his seat. How, why or even when this shout came about, nobody seems to know – nor why, in recent years, the shout has sometimes followed by a surprisingly well-imitated dog’s yelp. Like the Dude, the tradition simply abides. It’s one of the delightful mysteries of Cannes. May it endure to the 80th edition, and beyond…