Cannes Film Festival: A Potted History

The new identity of the spring festival based on the name in French: 'Festival de Cannes' Wild parties and all sort of shenanigans always characterize this film festival as filmmakers peddle their wares to prospective buyers looking for the next Citizen Kane.

Nothing about Cannes is simple. What we have here is a vanity fair where porn stars, billionaire actors and art-house auteurs cram like sardines onto the same stretch of coastline, and where the primary awards can veer dizzyingly, year-to-year, between big-name American movies and the sort of obscure foreign-language treasures that would have a BFI researcher scratching his head. Remember Man of Iron? The Chronicle of the Years of Embers? The Ballad of Narayama? It turns out that all of them are past Palme d'Or winners.

Conceived in 1939 as an alternative to the Fascist-influenced Venice Film Festival, Cannes has grown into the foremost annual meeting place for the international film industry. Apart from 1948 and 1950, when a lack of funds led to the cancellation of the event, the Festival has been held on a yearly basis since 1946. In its early years it took place in September, but, as of 1951, has been held in May for approximately 12 days.

At first, the Festival was mainly a tourist and social event for the few hundred participants attending the many parties organized in the palace hotels of the Croisette and the luxurious villas of Cannes. Owing to the great increase of participants and the new economic stakes involved, the Festival gradually became the annual gathering of film industry. In Cannes, the professionals could find a unique opportunity to meet, build up future projects and do business with partners from an increasing number of countries

In 1960, the first Cannes Market opened its doors to approximately ten participants and one screen (canvas hung from the roof of the old Palais Croisette). It quickly became a major meeting point for buyers and sellers from all over the world.

Thanks to a balance between the artistic quality of the films and their commercial impact, the Festival has gained in fame and has become a major crossroads for the international film scene. Not only does the presentation of a film in Cannes guarantee international publicity thanks to a high concentration of media, but the Festival also reveals as well as reflects the evolution and trends in world cinema while defending the notion of "cinéma d'auteur for a large audience".

Three Interesting Tidbits

• There has only been one time that the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes, and the Oscar for Best Picture have gone to the same movie. In 1955, Marty, the slice-of-life drama starring Ernest Borgnine as a lonely butcher, scripted by Paddy Chayefsky, won both honours

• No French film has won the top prize since 1987, when it went to Maurice Pialat's Under Satan's Sun, the story of a rural priest starring Gerard Depardieu

• Although the 2004 festival, when Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 took home the Palme d'Or, was seen as a highly political year for the festival, in 1968, a group of filmmakers, including Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, took over the largest screening room on opening night and held the curtains closed, to show solidarity with the student protestors. Because of this act of protest and others, the festival was shut down that year

Poster of the Festival among luscious palm trees... A long way away from Bognor Regis...

A Potted History of the Cannes Film Festival

1935 and 1936. The representatives of Western democracies attending the Mostra di Venezia were shocked by the influence of the fascist governments of Italy and Germany on the selection of films and the decisions of the jury. France, and particularly its Minister for Education and Fine Arts, Jean Zay, proposed the creation, in Cannes, of an international cinema event.

June 1939. Louis Lumière, inventor of the cinema, informed Georges Huisman, Director General for Fine Arts, that he was prepared to preside over the first International Film Festival, scheduled to take place in Cannes from 1 to 20 September. Its aim was “to encourage the development of all forms of cinematographic art and foster a spirit of collaboration between film-producing countries”. Painter Jean Gabriel Domergue, a Cannes resident, designed a poster that has become famous.

1 September 1939. Everything was ready for the opening of the Cannes Festival in the salons of the Municipal Casino. The war, which broke out the following day, interrupted this first festival before it had even begun.

• From 20 September to 5 October 1946. Films such as René Clément’s La Bataille du Rail, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, Charles Vidor’s Gilda or Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, had top billing in this first Cannes Festival, defined by Jean Cocteau as “a living comet that has touched down for a few days on La Croisette”. He added: “The Festival is an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm showing what the world could be if people could communicate directly with one another and speak the same language.”

1948. The Festival did not take place because of budgetary problems.

1949. Inauguration of the Festival Hall. The stars finally came to Cannes: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Norma Shearer, Errol Flynn and Edward G. Robinson were all there. André Bazin wrote: “Cannes seems to be the best of the official festivals.”

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3 to 20 April 1951. The Cannes Festival took place in spring for the first time.

1952. This year’s discoveries were Minelli’s An American in Paris, Orson Welles’ Othello and Kazan’s Viva Zapata.

1953. A starlet by the name of Brigitte Bardot made her appearance on La Croisette

1955. To crown the official selection, the Festival created the Palme d’Or. Until then, one or several ‘Grand Prix’ had been awarded, the prizes being paintings by Marquet, Humblot, Cavaillès or Klein... That year Elia Kazan’s East of Eden was booed by part of the audience in Cannes.

1959. Official birth of the Film Market, which had been taking place unofficially in the cinemas of Rue d’Antibes.

1960. The year of Federico Fellini’s controversial film La Dolce Vita.

1962. ‘Critics’ Week’ was created at the instigation of the Association Française de la Critique du Cinéma and the Film Festival.

1968. The Festival, which opened on 10 May with the screening of Gone with the Wind, was interrupted at noon on 19 May. The previous day Louis Malle, who had resigned from the jury, François Truffaut, Claude Berri, Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, Claude Lelouch, Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard, burst into the main auditorium of the Palais to demand that the screening be halted. Jean-Luc Godard went so far as to hang himself from the curtain so as to carry the day.

1971. The Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary. Charlie Chaplin was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

1975-77. Maurice Bessy created three official non-competitive sections: Les yeux fertiles, presenting films devoted to other arts, L’air du temps, privileging films dealing with contemporary issues, and Le passé composé, showing compilations on the cinema itself.

1987. For its 40th anniversary the Festival presented a montage, Le cinéma dans les yeux, and published a book, Les années Cannes. Federico Fellini compared Cannes to “a natural harbour where a film had to berth.”

1993. For the first time a woman received the Palme d’Or: Jane Campion for The Piano.

1994. The Festival had a stage curtain made in homage to Federico Fellini.

1997. The Cannes International Film Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Palme des Palmes was awarded to Ingmar Bergman for his life’s work.

2002. The powerful American Jewish Congress pressured Americans to stay away from the Festival because of increasing anti-Zionist sentiment in France stirred up by brutal repression of the Palestinians by the Israeli regime. There was also a special tribute to Bollywood, the world's largest film industry.

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2004. The 57th Cannes Film Festival created a worldwide stir by giving the highest award to Bush-bashing director Michael Moore for his documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 and by declaring a 14-year-old Japanese boy, Yuuya Yagira, as the Best Actor.

2012. Cannes goes from strength to strength and opened with Wes Anderson's new film Moonrise Kingdom. Celebrities included Brad Pitt, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Angelina Jolie.

2017. The festival celebrated its 70th anniversary. The Palme d'Or was awarded to the Swedish film The Square directed by Ruben Östlund. The festival was hosted by Monica Bellucci, the main competition jury president was Pedro Almodóvar and the Un Certain Regard jury president was Uma Thurman.