The Cannes Film Festival is as much a critical darling as it is a despised demon. Its undying admirers call it the Queen of Festivals. Its detractors lambast is as an ugly prostitute. The world’s top movie event, the Festival has been debased as one shamelessly selling art. Whatever it may, it is irrefutable that Cannes is an extravaganza of sheer cinema, monumental market and amazing allure.
Ever since Cannes first came into being in 1939, it has seduced millions of men and women into slavery of the French Riviera's sun, surf and screens. But this seduction has not always been sexy, suave and smooth. The first edition that kicked off on September 1 ended as soon as it began: that day Germany took Poland, and two days later, France and England declared war, and the beaches of Cannes — decorated with a huge cardboard model of the Notre-Dame Cathedral to promote William Dieterle's adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" – lost their fizz.
Planned with a clear political agenda, the Festival's first chapter may have been ironically shot down by a war, but politics would remain an essential ingredient of Cannes. Here are two examples. In May 1968 as the Festival was on, a huge student protest in Paris snowballed into night long clashes with the police. Termed "The Night of the Barricades", the street fight in the city's Latin Quarter led to major workers' unions supporting the students. Though the Government prevented much of the news from reaching Cannes, the little that filtered in caused unrest among the guests. Young film directors led by Francois Truffaut – who was already a persona non-grata at the Festival because of his consistent and caustic criticism of the annual event – pulled the curtain down a few days after Cannes opened.
Years later in 2004, when Cannes awarded its top Golden Palm to Michael Moore's documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," it was seen as a political decision that could have been made as easily by that year's jury president, Quentin Tarantino, as it could have by Jacques Chirac or by anybody else who wanted John Kerry instead of George Bush to win the U.S. elections.
Cannes' political face would seem like a foregone conclusion if we were to look at what motivated its creation in the first place. When French helmer Jean Renoir's anti-war masterpiece, "La Grande Illusion" won the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, Hitler was so angry that he banned the movie in Germany and Italy. A year later, when the Venice jury wanted to honour an American film, Berlin put pressure at the last minute, and the top prize, Mussolini Cup, was shared by two utterly Fascist propaganda works – Leni Riefenstahl's documentary "Olympiad" (on the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and Goffredo Alessandrini's "Lucciano Serra: Pilote" . Such blatant rigging and Fascist cheerleading angered especially the French contingent, and Philippe Erlanger, a civil servant, who was part of it, returned home convinced that a counter festival – of the free world – was absolutely essential. That was the seed out of which the Cannes Film Festival grew and bloomed.
However, to say that Cannes was all political would be missing the point. There was enough shimmer and shine to sweeten and stimulate the Festival, enough to divert and distract the detractors. And some of it was salacious. In the early 1950s, a very young Brigitte Bardot frolicked on the beach in a bikini with Kirk Douglas in his trunks, a leading American star of the day. In what has been described as Jane meets Tarzan, Bardot and Douglas gave the tens of photographers there sizzling shots. And when he used her hair as "pretend moustache" , the scene smacked of Freudian tendency.
In 1954, the paparazzi had more to feast on. Starlet Simone Silva, hungering for publicity, sashayed into a photo shoot of American actor Robert Mitchum. In a mini grass skirt and a transparent pink top, she ran into his arms and decided to go topless. Mitchum, who was shocked and did not quite know what was happening, gathering Silva to his chest to preserve a little of her modesty. The pictures of a topless starlet in the arms of a Hollywood star caused uproar back home, and the Cannes Festival Director had to apologise, particularly to the Americans, who threatened never to return to Cannes. It took a lot to convince them that Cannes was not aiming at fabricating erotica, but defending cinema. Cannes tried telling the world that the Festival was by no means a huge orgy as some papers were writing. However, by the 1990s and even earlier, topless women on the beach posing for lens hounds became so common that it ceased to create commotion or consternation. What did was not seduction on the sands but selections of movies.
For, all said and done, Cannes remains the world's premier Festival, certainly much ahead of Venice or Berlin. One important reason for Cannes being where it is, is the stability it has always enjoyed. For the first 50 years of Italy's Republic, there were 60 governments and as many heads of the Venice Film Festival. But Cannes had Robert Favre Le Bret leading it for 43 years, Gilles Jacob for 25 years, and now Thierry Fremaux would probably head it for as long, if not longer. Therein lies Cannes' secret of success.