“The climate is so odd,” Clint Eastwood once wrote about the world’s most famous and influential film festival. He wasn’t referring to the breezes coming off the Mediterranean. Rather, Eastwood was describing one hand of the Festival de Cannes, the commerce hand (“the whorehouse of selling,” he called it), with the other hand, “the intense cinemania, of searching for the gem, the one that’s going to knock everyone off their feet.”
This year’s festival runs Wednesday through May 25. Cannes means tuxedos and stilettos on the sand. It glows as a glutton’s feast of international cinema, yet there’s barely time for a sandwich. Cannes, which most French folk pronounce neither “Can” nor “Cahn” but somewhere in the middle, is where careers are made and eroded, depending on a film’s reception or a face’s bone structure and its ability to attract paparazzi. Thousands of films that will never win awards play the Marche (the marketplace), while hundreds more vie for attention, a distributor’s interest and the embrace of an audience in various sidebar competitions.
Over the years, films as disparate as “Marty,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Pulp Fiction” have been awarded the Palme d’Or, the grand prize. This year, “The Guerrilla” and “The Argentine,” Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic treatment of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, competes against 21 other entries for the most prestigious of the major Cannes prizes. Other competitors include Eastwood’s “Changeling,” a 1920s kidnapping drama starring Angelina Jolie, and the sort of picture Eastwood is unlikely to ever attempt, “Three Monkeys,” from the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Plus, a little something called “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” makes its out-of-competition world premiere Sunday at Cannes.
Here’s a sampling of festival history.
1939: Chosen over Biarritz, France, the seaside resort city of Cannes announces its inaugural festival, born in response to the Venice Film Festival, widely seen as a propaganda tool of Mussolini and the Nazis. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” screens in the newly constructed Palais. Then news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland spreads, and the rest of the festival is canceled.
1946: The Festival de Cannes begins in earnest. Then, as now, nearby movie houses screen film after film not invited to compete by the all-French jury (later diversified). Eleven films share the grand prize, including Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City,” Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” and David Lean’s “Brief Encounter.” Also in competition, Alfred Hitchcock “met his match,” in the words of Robert Chazal: “The film projectionist added to the already suspenseful `Notorious’ by forgetting the last reel of film.”
1955: “Marty” wins the grand prize, renamed the Palme d’Or. By now Cannes enjoys its reputation for cheesecake, beefcake and haute couture scandal, thanks in part to photos of Brigitte Bardot in a bikini and, in 1954, snaps of Robert Mitchum and topless starlet Simone Silva.
1968: Student protests spill out of Paris and force the festival’s midstream cancellation. Prior to Cannes, directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard successfully fight for the reinstatement of Cinematheque Francaise founder Henri Langlois. Truffaut and Godard, then cast their lot with striking workers and students and led the movement to close the festival. One observer wrote: “On the beach, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski were completely indifferent to these goings-on. They looked really happy.”
1976: This year’s jury president, Tennessee Williams, and his colleagues award the Palme d’Or to Martin Scorese’s “Taxi Driver.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, meantime, hand the Oscar for best picture to “Rocky.”
1986: “The Mission” wins the Palme d’Or, proving that Cannes makes its share of mistakes. Built in the early `80s, the new Palais, on the Croisette west of the grand hotels dotting the seaside boulevard, earns the nickname “the Bunker.” It is also referred to as “the Death Star.” Cineastes learn to put up with the architectural blight: The largest of the auditoriums, the Grand Theatre Lumiere, offers one of the world’s great moviegoing experiences in terms of screen size, projection quality and usher haughtiness.
1994: Clint Eastwood heads this year’s jury, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” wins the grand prize, paving the way for an international sensation.
2008: This year’s poster, inspired by the imagery of filmmaker David Lynch, shows a platinum blond with her eyes blacked out. The poor woman saw too many movies. This year’s festival, appropriately, opens Wednesday with Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness.” Actor-director Sean Penn serves as this year’s jury president.