Cannes Film Festival flashback: Most memorable editions, from post-WWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

Cannes Film Festival, originally scheduled to run from 12-23 May, will not be held in its 'original form' this year due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Prahlad Srihari May 14, 2020 14:54:25 IST
Cannes Film Festival flashback: Most memorable editions, from post-WWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

May holds a special place in the calendar of film lovers across the world. It is when the privileged few of them gather at that most hallowed rendezvous on the Croisette for Cannes Film Festival — and it sure is a privilege to discover the best films of the year, before they are coated with all that promotional sheen.

Sadly, Cannes 2020, originally scheduled to run from 12-23 May, will not be held in its "original form" this year due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis; but it was announced on Sunday that it will screen an official selection of its films at fall festivals like Venice. Meanwhile, all its parallel sections — Directors' Fortnight, Critics' Week, ACID — have been cancelled. With many other festivals also cancelled, cinemas closed, and productions on hold, the COVID-19 pandemic has paralysed the film industry. 

It is unfortunate especially following the success of last year's edition, which proved exactly why Cannes is still considered the barometer of quality in cinema. Some of the most beloved films of 2019 began their journey at the festival: Beanpole, Bacurau, I Lost My Body, Invisible Life, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse and, not to mention, the eventually Oscar-winning Parasite. It was truly an exceptional line-up, in terms of scale, variety and substance. Turning back the clock, we time-travel to Cannes film festivals over the years with equally exceptional line-ups.

End of a war, birth of a festival

Highlights | Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau), Brief Encounter (David Lean), Gaslight (George Cukor), Gilda (Charles Vidor), The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder), Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock), Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini)

Cannes Film Festival flashback Most memorable editions from postWWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau) - Cannes 1946

Proposed as an alternative to Venice Film Festival (then politicised by Mussolini), the first edition of Cannes was initially supposed to be held in 1939. Louis Lumière, the man who gave us cinema, was announced as president. MGM had chartered an ocean liner to bring all the stars from Hollywood. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Mae West, Norma Shearer, Spencer Tracy, and many more had arrived on the Croisette. Then, Germany invaded Poland and they all had to book return tickets. The world had to wait till the war ended for a taste of what Cannes had to offer — and boy, did they deliver.

Alfred Hitchcock got everyone's hearts racing and adrenaline pumping with Notorious. Billy Wilder followed up Double Indemnity with a grim portrait of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend. David Lean served a romantic tearjerker for the ages in Brief Encounter. Italian neorealism began to take shape with Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City. Jean Cocteau crafted an anti-Disney treatment of Beauty and the Beast, where the surreal and real, the ugliness and beauty come together in a magic realist concoction. Out of the 44 feature films screened, 11 of them (one from each participating country) were awarded the top prize, Grand Prix (now called Palme d'Or), for reasons of diplomacy. This included India's sole Palme d'Or crown (till now) in Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar

However, it was anything but a smooth-running operation. In a comedy of errors, the reels of Hitchcock's Notorious were reversed, screened with the ending reel first, while the projection of George Sydney’s The Three Musketeers was turned upside-down. There was also tension brewing over the beginning of the Cold War. Russia blamed every technical issue on the US; the US cried sabotage over last-minute parties being scheduled at the same time as Hollywood films. 

Despite reversed reels and upside-down projections, Cold War scandals and consolation awards, the inaugural edition proved it could only get better. Cannes 1946 helped France regain its status as an economic power in Europe post-WWII, also enhancing its cultural weight over the rest of the world — at least, in terms of cinema. 

The glitz and glamour

Highlights | Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai), La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini), L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni), The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman), The Young One (Luis Buñuel)

Cannes Film Festival flashback Most memorable editions from postWWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini) - Cannes 1960

Within a decade, Cannes had set a new precedent for other festivals. Call it a temple of cinema or a glamorous vanity fair, it was beginning to attract the best filmmakers in world cinema. It also became the new locus for the golden age of Italian cinema, as two of its canonical entries, Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's L'avventura, were both screened at the festival. Not without controversy of course.

La Dolce Vita and L'avventura divided the critics and the public, stirring the deepest admiration and aversion. The former ended up winning the Palme d'Or, the latter the Jury Prize. However, for a large portion of the public, La Dolce Vita was an overlong decadent affair intended to outrage all good taste and sensibilities. They also didn't care for the pacing or abstract narrative of L'avventura, having expected it to be a straightforward investigative thriller. The boos and barbs got so severe, lead star Monica Vitti left the screening hall in tears.

Cannes has become a stage for glitz and glamour, parties and photo calls, and the army of paparazzi that comes with them. With La Dolce Vita, Fellini sums up the hope and despair, the beauty and ugliness to this superficial celebrity lifestyle, testifying to the social malaise underneath. In L'avventura, Antonioni created a new visual language of his own, one which reflected its synthetic nature while merging the realms of reality and abstraction. Before Come and See and Ivan's Childhood, Grigori Chukhrai gave us an equally lyrical meditation on war in Ballad of a Soldier. Also screened at the festival were Bimal Roy's Sujata and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (out of competition).

With Marché du Film established just the previous year, Cannes had also set the stage to become the premier global film market we know it as today, giving film professionals the opportunity to shake hands with the best in the business.

Pulp Fiction puts American indie films on the world cinema map

Highlights | Exotica (Atom Egoyan), The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen Brothers), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino), Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski), Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami), To Live (Zhang Yimou)

Cannes Film Festival flashback Most memorable editions from postWWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) - Cannes 1994

Cannes 1994 will forever be remembered as the year Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or, thanks to jury president Clint Eastwood. The film beat favourites like Krzysztof Kieslowsk's final feature, Three Colours: Red, and Nanni Moretti's Dear Diary, which was eagerly championed by jury vice-president Catherine Deneuve. The victories of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 and Pulp Fiction in 1994 gave American independent cinema global validation. Pulp Fiction of course benefited from producer Harvey Weinstein's "Iron Curtain Strategy" to increase the buzz with limited screenings, while targeting selected American critics to deliver glowing reviews. It began his enduring love affair with Cannes, as he returned as jury president 10 years later and delivered three more of his films (Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019) in the race for Palme d'Or. 

The edition boasted a particularly rich line-up across the various sections. Un Certain Regard, the official selection which was created in 1978, and favoured atypical films and lesser-known filmmakers, included Olivier Assayas' Cold Water (L'eau froide), Pedro Costa's Down to Earth (Casa de Lava), Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep (J'ai pas sommeil) among others. Adding to the festival's scale and eclecticism were the parallel sections. Critics' Week featured Kevin Smith's Clerks, while Directors' Fortnight had a commendable line-up of films from Aki Kaurismäki (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana), Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman), Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) and Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen). John Waters' hilariously absurd satire, Serial Mom, was also screened out of competition.

The pinnacle of eclecticism

Highlights | Palme d'Or: Antichrist (Lars von Trier), A Prophet (Jacques Audiard), Bright Star (Jane Campion), Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar), Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé), Face (Tsai Ming-liang), Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino), Thirst (Park Chan-wook), The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman), Wild Grass (Alain Resnais), Vincere (Marco Bellocchio), Vengeance (Johnnie To), The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

Un Certain Regard: Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos), Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve), Mother (Bong Joon-ho)

Out of Competition: Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi), Pixar's Up (Pete Docter)

Cannes Film Festival flashback Most memorable editions from postWWII beginnings to its 2009 pinnacle

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) - Cannes 2009

Andrea Arnold, Bong Joon-ho, Jane Campion, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, Park Chan-wook, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, Yorgos Lanthimos and more. Talk about an umissable festival line-up. But with this diversity came division, as some of the jury members ended up in a bitter battle. Jury President Isabelle Huppert and fellow juror James Gray reportedly fought over the former favouring Antichrist, and in the end, reached a compromise with The White Ribbon.

The 2009 edition was also an example of how Cannes is a unique showcase for little-known filmmakers to introduce their films to larger audiences. It is hard to imagine if we would all have been raving about Lanthimos and the Greek Weird Wave, if Dogtooth hadn't won Prix Un Certain Regard. Ditto, with Mia Hansen-Løve. It is no wonder filmmakers and producers organise their production schedules in order to be able to present their films at Cannes.

Cannes 2020 could have matched the 2019, if not 2009, edition with a line-up, which would have probably included Annette (Leos Carax), Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve), The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson), Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright), Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour), Peninsula (Yeon Sang-Ho), Pixar's Soul (Pete Doctor), Tenet (Christopher Nolan) and many more. We'll know more when Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux makes an announcement on the selection in June. Even if there's no physical or online edition of the festival, just imagining a "What if" wishlist makes for a comforting exercise in these strange times.

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