Tuesday 26 May 2015

Celebrating Film, by Carol Drinkwater

By the time you read this, the 68th Cannes Film Festival will have packed
up its wares and the pantechnicons will be back on the road. The awards will have been handed out and celebrated at illustrious parties, Elton John will have hosted his annual Aids event, and the stars will be on planes flying off to their various countries of residence, while this coastal city of Cannes, once a humble fishing village, will be preparing for its next onslaught of visitors: the summer tourists.

I am writing this blog hours before l’ouverture du festival. Excitement is riding high as all has yet to be revealed. This year, the American filmmakers, the Coen Brothers, are jointly heading up the jury for the Official Competition Selection. They say they are delighted to be here, to be able to take the time to sit back and watch some movies! Last week in Paris, I went to see a re-run of their wonderfully anarchic film, The Big Lebowski. Their take on life and cinema should make for a fascinating and, hopefully, surprising choice of award-winning features.

Strolling the famous Croisette at this time of year, it is impossible not to pick up on the excitement, the anticipation, as Cannes readies itself to receive 25,000 visitors over the next two weeks. The festival always commences on a Wednesday evening and concludes ten days later on a Sunday night with an out-of-competition screening that follows the awards ceremony.
The restaurants have been glammed up, prices hiked, all shops have evening wear displayed in their windows; the beaches have been cleared of all flotsam and jetsam, decorated with potted palms and new sand trucked in. Meanwhile, on the city side of this glamorous promenade, the rental of a three-bedroom apartment with sea views will set you back somewhere in the region of 30,000 euros for the ten days! Don't worry, it usually includes daily cleaning services.

The Cannes Film Festival is seriously big business for those living and operating in this seaside resort and for those flying in with high hopes of selling their films, pitching their projects to distributors and investors or, for those chosen few, to bask in the glory of winning the Palme d’Or, the Golden Palm, the highest accolade of several festival prizes.

With all the razzamatazz going on, it is all too easy to forget the genesis of this exceptionally high-flying affair. Its original purpose is frequently overshadowed. So, I thought this May blog would be the perfect opportunity to recall how this festival came about, and why.

The Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated on 20th September 1946, but its inception goes back to the year before the outbreak of WW11.

                                                  The poster for Venice's first film festival

During the 1930s, Venice had become a leading light in European cinema, mainly due to its successful film festival, which commenced in 1932. Here in France, Jean Zay, visionary Minister of National Education and Fine Arts from 1936 to 1939 (appointed by Léon Blum), decided that the time had come for the French to host an international cultural event to rival Venice. One of the reasons that Zay and other leading intellectuals in France were eager to set up a national festival of their own was because in September 1938, hours before the Venice awards were due to be announced, the jury members at the Mostra, under pressure from Hitler and Mussolini, changed their voted results in favour of a Nazi propaganda film.

                                                                           Jean Zay

Zay proposed that the first Cannes festival debut in September 1939. Each European country, including Germany and Italy, although both refused to participate, was invited to select one film to be screened in competition. Nine countries, I believe, sent films. Louis Lumière agreed to take on the role of President of the Jury.

On 31st May 1939, the City of Cannes and the French government signed the international Film Festival’s birth certificate, proposing that the festival run from 1st to 20th September of that year.

"The aim of the Festival is to encourage the development of the art of filmmaking in all its forms, while fostering and maintaining a spirit of collaboration among all filmmaking countries."

Much was readied for the inaugural event. The artist Jean-Gabriel Domergue designed the first official poster and festival-attendees began to arrive during the hot days of August. Sumptuous parties were thrown.

A cardboard replica of the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was built on the beach as a promotion for William Dieterle’s Quasimodo. Hollywood stars such as Mae West arrived by boat from the United States. Cannes was gearing up for a prestigious affair.
However, the clouds of war were gathering over Europe. In the first instance, the festival was postponed for ten days, but as we know Germany marched into Poland on 1st September and on 3rd September, both France and Britain declared war on their enemy. The festival was cancelled. The only film screened was Quasimodo at an invitation-only soirée.

Mobilisation was underway. All festival attendees returned home.

It was not until 1946 - from 20th September to 5th October - that the inaugural event eventually took place in the old casino of Cannes. Tragically, Jean Zay did not live to see the birth of this now internationally renowned festival. He was assassinated by the Millice in 1944, condemned for being an active member of the resistance and a Jew. Zay is a national hero, but history was at risk of forgetting him.  Until, in February 2014, François Hollande confirmed that the body of Jean Zay, along with three other courageous figures, including two women, from the Resistance, will be moved to the Panthéon in recognition of his invaluable contribution to France.

The choice of Cannes for the film festival rather than, let’s say, Paris is not so surprising, although for a few short weeks in May 1939, it was mooted that the event would be held in Biarritz, but, eventually, the Riviera won out. So why Cannes? Thirty kilometres east along the coast in the once Italian, ochre-toned city of Nice, lies the Victorine Studios, (still semi-active today but under new ownership and a different name). It was a part of the glamorous world of “French Hollywood” - a city on the sea making films. The studios had been the location for many silent films and when “talkies” came in, the Victorine adapted swiftly and became a profitable enterprise. This French Riviera coast was becoming synonymous with filmmaking. So, to locate a festival close by made perfect sense. Added to which, Jean Cocteau along with other writers and cineastes had plans to build another huge movie lot in Mougins, six kilometres inland of Cannes. The land was purchased, but due to the outbreak of war this dream never materialised.

                                                                Poster for 1946 Festival
(Is it just me or does this poster, the angle of the camera, the dominant black outfit, resemble a weapon of war?)

The Cannes International Film Festival was finally born in the heady atmosphere of victory in 1946, although the funds to pay for the event were hard to come by. The French State and the municipality of Cannes were strapped for cash and the money was raised through public subscriptions. The Cannes Festival was finally underway. It was the naissance of what has developed into a world-class event; a gathering of filmmakers from every country and every political and religious persuasion. It has become a place where filmmakers want to be, where they jostle to participate.

Still, although, the baby was born, it was not an easy growth and in both 1948 and 1950, the festival did not take place due to financial constraints.

Ironically, the early years introduced the world to Italian cinema, to neorealism and the masterpieces coming out of Italy.
In 1951, the Cannes festival was moved to the spring - which is where it has remained ever since - to avoid clashes with the autumn Venice festival. Now that both nations were at peace with one another, films and the survival of the art of cinema took first place.

From the 1950s onwards, Cannes went from strength to strength. During the Cold War, the United States helped to keep it operating and Hollywood stepped in in force.

In 1955, the Palme d’Or replaced the Grand Prix as the most coveted award, given to the best film in competition.

As the years rolled on, other selections were created in parallel to the Official Selection: Semaine Internationale de la Critique, Directors’ Fortnight, Cinefondation, to name but three.

1965 welcomed the first female president of the jury, Olivia de Havilland. Followed directly the following year by another stunning actress as president, Sophia Loren. Jeanne Moreau was not given this prestigious duty until 1975.

                                            Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider

1968 was a memorable year for the festival and worth mentioning. The 21st film festival - 10th to 24th May - opened with a restored version of Gone With the Wind, directed by Viktor Fleming. On the morning of 18th May 1968, François Truffaut along with Louis Malle, a member of that year's jury, and fellow directors Claude Berri, Claude Lelouch, Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard and others, took over the large screening room, the Grande Salle, in the Le Palais, interrupting a projection, to call for the festival's  closure. It was, they said, an act of solidarity against the government and with the soixante-huitards, the students and labour movements striking throughout France, including cinema unions. They called for the festival to be shut down. Milos Forman whose brilliant film, The Fireman's Ball, was scheduled to be screened withdrew his work.
Godard is quoted as saying: ' There's not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or François. We've missed the boat! It's not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It's a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately.'
The spirit of the barricades prevailed and the remaining days of the festival were eventually cancelled.
I have been fortunate to have performed as an actress in several films that have been shown here in one selection or another. It is a thrilling experience. These days, when I drive down the hill as a spectator to watch a movie or two, I am sometimes a little saddened to see the insanity that has taken over the event. Its market can give the impression of a bazaar and a lot of hot air is overheard. Also, alongside the official entries, another event has been spawned: a very successful porn film festival. The legitimate and the porn never rub shoulders with one another, as far as I am aware, but I have noticed that some of the biggest, glitziest yachts are hired out for porn parties.
As I said, the Cannes Film Festival is big business and it turns the spotlight full on to this coast, upholding the glamorous image for the tourist trade. Yet, I see another side to the coin. One cannot help but notice that there are visitors, wannabes, hopefuls, trawling the streets with dreams that will never see the light of day, and for some of them it proves to be a cruel, cold sojourn in the sun.


Federico Fellini was a regular guest here accompanied his lovely actress-wife, Giulietta Masina. In 1960, he was honoured with the Palme d’Or for La Dolce Vita. When I am down in amongst the thick of this jamboree, I sometimes ask myself whether Fellini’s vision of the world with its Jungian influences and its multi-layered humorous and tragic aspects best suits the circus that is the twenty-first century film festival and market.

Yet, when one is clad in evening dress (de rigueur for the evening screenings), sitting beneath the stars late at night on a warm spring evening listening to nightingales singing, while enjoying an al fresco dinner with companions who are also in Cannes to celebrate film, there is a palpable sense of inspiration, of participation, of collective exhilaration. It is during those moments that I silently remind myself what it has cost the men and women who worked to bring this international celebration of the Seventh Art into being and I feel very proud and humbled to have been given the opportunity to have shared in just a few tiny moment's of its history.



Sue Purkiss said...

The story behind the festival is much more interesting than the big story this year - the nonsense about women not being allowed to wear flat shoes! Thank you, Carol - fascinating!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Sue, I have worn flat shoes up the red carpet but I did not attend any screenings this year so am bemused by this silly story particularly given that this was the year when they wanted to put the spotlight on women filmmakers. It was ludicrous, frankly.

Clare Mulley said...

Wonderful to learn the Jean Zay has been recognised, I missed this somehow when it happened last year. Is there a Zay award at all Carol? Thank you.

theokus said...

A nice piece about the past and present of the film festival.
Everything is in it to get a good idea, even the spicy edges where I didn't know about.

Stephen Mitchell said...


Christina Koning said...

Thanks for this, Carol - a fascinating piece. With a son who's an aspiring screenwriter (and former staff member of the BFI), I've been interested in film for a number of years, and always take an interest in the latest news from Cannes. How wonderful that you have actually been a part of its glamorous story!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Clare, there is no award given at the festival that remembers Jean Zay.