REELING BACK THE YEARS

When the 50th Cannes Film Festival takes place next month the winner of the Palme d'Or will be joining such undisputed classics as 'Apocalyps e Now', 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg', 'Kagemusha' and 'Taxi Driver'. But then there was 'The Birds, The Bees and The Italians' ...

THE CANNES Film Festival shrugs off every joke made at its expense - that the weather in May is sometimes as unreliable and piercing as a summer day in San Francisco; or that even when the weather is beau, joli and entirely mai, the visitors respond by spending every daylight hour in the dark. The fair city of Cannes sits where the mountains spill down to the Mediterranean. It is within easy reach of Nice, Antibes, Mougins, Vence and Grasse. Yet foreigners who book into the festival a year ahead have seldom seen those sites, nor exposed themselves to the superb restaurants and challenging art museums. They go to Cannes, it seems, for the chance to grumble at French officiousness, French incompetence, the humiliating queues for 8.30am and midnight screenings; the programme that never allows time for a decent meal; and the over-riding anxiety that, even seeing five films a day, one has missed something. Above all, perhaps, there are the bad films, the dreadful films, the films slept through and walked out of, the films that only prove the ceaseless fertility of a dying medium. Indeed, there are those who date their own dismay and disillusion with film to the humourless plenty of the Cannes festival.

Yet this is the festival of festivals, in the last country on earth that keeps an innocent reverence for movie stars. To see the French swarming around the space and the light occupied by Catherine Deneuve is to partake of the religion that once was stardom in so many other countries. Amid all its confusion and vulgarity, Cannes can offer marvels with the same odd mix of tenderness and pomp that the Marquis in La Regle du Jeu presents his musical toys. And so, at 50, Cannes is a weathered but attractive woman still, as deeply ravaged by experience as Jeanne Moreau and as teenage fresh and hopeful as Emmanuelle Beart. She has the glamour of intrigue about her; that suggestion of secret pressures on the jury, advance knowledge of surprise screenings, and the expert eye that has seen bedroom doors open and close at the Carlton, the Majestic, the Martinez, the Splendide, not to mention Hotel du Cap. But it is a gaze ready for movie marvels, too.

Of course, even the fuss over the 50th is a little fudged. But it's hard to keep count. The first festival was meant for September 1939. As such, it was going to be every bit as grand as the world's first film festival, at Venice, begun in 1932. But that September was not a happy choice. Just as Renoir's Marquis in La Regle du Jeu had shut up his house by then, so France had other things on its mind.

Thus it was 20 September 1946 before the Cannes festival had its official start, located in the city casino. Nearly every film got a prize of some sort; the Grand Prix was shared by 11 films, including Brief Encounter, The Lost Weekend, Alf Sjoberg's Frenzy and Rossellini's Rome, Open City. But then there were awkward years. The festival missed out on 1948 and 1950. It was only in 1951 that it found its spring date and its headquarters for more than three decades, the Palais des Festivals. Thereafter, it was a fixed annual event, with this exception - in 1968, as a nod to mai '68, the festival shut down in rather vague sympathy with France's other strikes and protests. And if you count carefully, omitting '39 but including '68, this year's festival will be the 50th.

Cannes has always been a furiously active business fair. There are the films in competition, with their official screenings, but these are heavily outnumbered by the market screenings - nearly every viable room in town has a projection system where all manner of movies are shown and then sold throughout the world. Many people go to Cannes and never see a movie. They set up shop in a hotel room and work a packed diary of meetings, trading this movie and that to every possible market on the globe - theatrical, video, cable, merchandising. In the same way, pictures-to-be are floated and funded, sometimes on not much more than an outline and that beauty outside on the terrace struggling to keep her dress on. For $50,000 up front you could have her and the picture for the Portuguese-speaking cassette market.

The market is a place for hard-nosed deals, rogues, and hustlers. Whereas, each day at the Nouveau Palais des Festivals (opened in 1983, and immediately labelled "the Bunker"), the great and grand films in official competition are unspooled. From year to year, and even from day to day, with just a tuxedo instead of a leather jacket and a Dior gown instead of a bikini, the players from one board game jump over to the other. A lot of the fun at Cannes comes from watching those moves.

But the prizes are very important: they sustain the solemnity of those people like festival director Gilles Jacob; and often they alert us all to great movies - after all, the Cannes festival has inaugurated the world's urge to see such movies as The Wages of Fear (1953), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

What does it mean to be in competition? Well, it is to be one of only a handful of films. The several sections of the festival admit fewer than 50 films in a year, and those are the movies that happen to be ready and new (Cannes prefers to get virgin films, though often the American entries have played at home first) and what Jacob and his indiosyncratic selection process deem fit to be invited. Many movies are never shown at Cannes, and more have no chance of being there just because their post- production is completed at the wrong time of year.

Then there is the jury, a body of worthies, 10-strong in recent years, international and quite starry, supposedly free from bias, interference and lobbying. But human, too, and closely guarded by the festival officials who are known for having their own politics in backing one film rather than another. This is a way of saying that the jury's decisions are often controversial. Victors have often been greeted - as well as the screening of masterpieces likc L'Avventura - with the uniquely supercilious sound of French booing. But just because jurors are human - as well as friends and enemies to other film-makers - the Cannes jury is famous over the years for yielding to pressure. Its greatest mark of weakness (and kindness) is its ability to invent new prizes in any year just to be sure no one is left out. And so, last year, for instance, the jury that had Francis Coppola as its president (and which included actresses Nathalie Baye and Greta Scacchi) gave the Palme d'Or (the top prize) to Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies; it awarded a grand prix to Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves; it gave the mise-en-scene (or directing) prize to Fargo; and then it conjures up a special jury prize for David Cronenberg's Crash, presumably in an effort to forestall the cries of condemnation that the film was expected to earn.

This year the jury president will be Isabelle Adjani, and her team is expected to include Michael Ondaatje and Paul Auster. The festival has always enjoyed having notable authors. Previous juries have boasted Georges Simenon, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrel, Anthony Burgess, Carlos Fuentes, Francoise Sagan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Norman Mailer and Nadine Gordimer. That's all very well, but it leaves one wondering why painters and composers are so seldom invited. Naturally, great film-makers are also treasured, and Cannes juries have included Abel Gance, Luis Bunuel, Michael Powell, Fritz Lang, Rene Clair, Rossellini, Bertolucci and even Francois Truffaut who went in the space of a few years from being a fierce critic of Cannes conservatism in the press, to a prizewinner in 1959 (for mise-en-scene) with The 400 Blows, to a juror in 1962.

Over the years, there have been some notable juries, gatherings one would love to have overheard (the jury proceedings are - what else? - in camera). In 1977, Roberto Rossellini was president of a jury that included Pauline Kael, actress Marthe Keller, Carlos Fuentes, and director Jacques Demy. In 1980, Kirk Douglas was a famously autocratic president of a jury that began to want to change its mind and split the Palme d'Or between Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. In 1994, Clint Eastwood and Catherine Deneuve presided over the jury, looking rather like the emperor and empress of a land called Cinema.

There are vagaries in the results - how could there not be? In 1952, for instance, the grand prix was shared between Orson Welles's Othello and Renato Castellani's Two Cents Worth of Hope - and only one of those has lasted. In 1957, the Palme d'Or went to William Wyler's ponderous Friendly Persuasion, no matter that Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds, Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Bresson's A Man Escaped were in competition. In 1973, the grand prix was given to Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow - Schatzberg is one of those American film-makers more esteemed in France than in America - while Jean Eustach's extraordinary The Mother and the Whore had to make do with a special jury prize (the jury that year, led by Ingrid Bergman, included Lawrence Durrell and American director Sydney Pollack). In 1991, the Palme d'Or went to the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, and Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse had to settle for a grand prix.

Nevertheless, over the years, Cannes has given one or other of its top prizes to these films: Rene Clement's La Bataille du Rail ('46); Crossfire ('47), which picked up a prize for "Films Sociaux", The Third Man ('49); Miss Julie ('51); Marty ('55); La Dolce Vita ('60); Viridiana ('61); The Eclipse ('62); The Leopard ('63); Blow Up ('67); If ('69); Death in Venice ('71); The Conversation ('74); Taxi Driver ('76); Padre Padrone ('77); The Tree of Wooden Clogs ('78); The Tin Drum ('79); L'Argent ('83); Paris, Texas ('84); sex, lies and videotape ('89); The Piano ('93); and Pulp Fiction ('94). Something has been working.

On the other hand, there are omissions or anomalies that seem to amount to feuds, like the one that kept Antibes resident Graham Green from a Nobel Prize (and off the Cannes jury? - he must have been asked). In more than 35 years, for instance, the great French director Jean-Luc Godard has never served on a jury and never had a picture that won a prize. That should have happened in the early Sixties. It did not, and Godard may have sealed his fate by taking a leading part in the "interruption" of 1968. As it is, he must await the kind of grand gesture that Cannes can make to honour a total career; thus, in 1966, the festival gave its 20th anniversary prize to Orson Welles. There is a similar award this year, and it goes to Ingmar Bergman, who has since said he's too occupied, and too averse to travel, to attend the ceremonies.

Since 1946, Cannes has also awarded acting prizes, and these have raised some eyebrows. In 1946, prizes went to Ray Milland for The Lost Weekend and Michele Morgan for Symphonie Pastorale. By 1971, Mlle Morgan, hardly altered in beauty, was president of the jury. That's typical of Cannes's habit of cultivating friendly stars: in the space of a decade, Clint Eastwood progressed from being a wary visitor (on a yacht in the harbour) to jury president.

Three years later, in 1949, the acting prize went to Edward G Robinson in House of Strangers (despite Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard in The Third Man) - and by 1953 Robinson was on the jury. But many of the early acting awards were deserved: in 1951, there was Bette Davis in All About Eve and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version; in 1952, Brando in Viva Zapata and Lee Grant in Detective Story. Then these awards ceased for a few years - who knows why? - and were resumed in 1957.

But there would be oddities and howlers: Paul Newman won in 1958 for The Long Hot Summer - somewhat redeemed in '59 when the prize went collectively to Bradford Dillman, Dean Stockwell and Orson Welles for Compulsion. But who can recall, let alone treasure, Anthony Perkins in Goodbye Again ('61); Kitty Winn in Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park ('71); Susannah York in Images ('72) - she was a juror in 1979; Joanne Woodward in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds ('73); Valerie Perrine in Lenny ('75)?

More recently, in 1995, the acting prize went to the estimable Helen Mirren for one of her lesser roles, the queen in The Madness of King George while Emma Thompson's Carrington went unnoticed. Yet there have been spot-on years, too: Holly Hunter in The Piano and David Thewlis in Naked in 1993 (a year when the jury included Judy Davis and Gary Oldman). And the festival gave prizes to Jack Nicholson in 1974 for The Last Detail, to Meryl Streep in 1989 for A Cry in the Dark, and, collectively, in 1962 to Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr and Dean Stockwell for Long Day's Journey into Night.

In 1977, for the first time, a prize was given for the best debut film: it went to Ridley Scott for The Duellists (which could have sent every Cannes visitor home by way of the Dordogne). Two years later, the Camera d'Or was established as a prize for tho best first film. So far, its record is mixed at best, which may suggest that Cannes jurors are better at rewarding proven success than picking talent. The first Camera d'Or went to John Hanson and Rob Nilsson for Northern Lights. Since then, its most acute decisions have been on behalf of Jim Jarmusch for Stranger Than Paradise ('84) and Mira Nair for Salaam Bombay ('88). But most of its recipients have not yet fulfilled Cannes's faith.

Why should they? Why should a festival give prizes? Why have film festivals? There are notable annual celebrations that really give no awards - New York and London, for example. There are also film festivals that have become automatic, hardly discernible from the steady onset of movies year round - London and New York, for example.

Cannes never claims that it or its awards are sensible. Regular festival- goers would never make that claim for room-rates at the hotels or the price of a beer and what the French still regard as a sandwich. For about two weeks, Cannes makes a killing - and surely natives pick that time to rent out their houses and get out of the way. There are places that have been significantly altered by having a film festival - Sundance and Telluride, in America - and serve them right. A lot of film festivals could miss a year, or two, or a decade, without much impact on film culture and the city concerned.

With Cannes, it is different. Distinguished film critics and rascal distributors rely on it, to fill May, to sustain their business, and to give them a kick. It is like Christmas for people who have no family life. And Cannes has a deft way with its "scandals". and outrages, its discoveries and its winners. When all is said and done, I doubt there's ever been a nation that loved film more than the French, or felt more miffed at America for stealing the show. So Cannes is a gesture of authorial rights - and, after all, it was the French who invented the auteur.

! The 1997 Cannes Film Festival opens on 7 May.

PALME D'OR ROLL OF HONOUR

1949 The Third Man (Carol Reed, GB)

1951 Miss Julie (Alf Sjoberg, Sweden)

Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, Italy)

1952 Othello (Orson Welles, Italy/Morocco)

1952 Two Cents' Worth of Hope; (Renato Castellani, Italy)

1953 Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France)

1954 Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan)

1955 Marty (Delbert Mann, US)

1956 World of Silence (Jacques Cousteau, France)

1957 Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, US)

1958 The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, Russia)

1959 Black Orpheus Marcel Camus France/Italy/Brazil)

1960 La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy)

1961 The Long Absence (Henri Colpi; France) Viridiana (Luis Bunuel, Spain)

1962 The Given Word (Anselmo Duarte, Brazil)

1963 The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, Italy)

1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France)

1965 The Knack ... And How To Get It Richard Lester, GB)

1966 The Birds, The Bees And The Italians (Pietro Germi, Italy)

1966 A Man And A Woman (Claude Lelouch, France)

1967 Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, (GB/Italy)

1969 If Lindsay Anderson (GB)

1970 M.A.S.H. (Robert Altman,US)

1971 The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, GB)

1972 The Mattei Affair (Francesco Rosi,

Italy)

1972 The Working Class Go To Heaven (Elio Petri, Italy)

1973 The Hireling (Alan Bridges, GB)

Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, US)

1974 The Conversation (Francis Coppola, US)

1975 Chronicle of the Burning Years

(Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, Algeria)

1976 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, US)

1977 Padre Padrone (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy)

1978 The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi, Italy)

1979 Apocalypse Now (Francis Coppola, US)

The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff,

Germany)

1980 All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US)

Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, Japan)

1981 Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda, Poland)

1982 Yol (Yilmaz Guney, Turkey) Missing (Costa-Gavras, US)

1983 The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, Japan)

1984 Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, US/Ger many)

1985 When Father Was Away On Business (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia)

1986 The Mission (Roland Joffe, GB)

1987 Under Satan's Sun (Maurice Pialat, France)

1988 Pelle The Conqueror (Bille August,

Sweden)

1989 sex, lies and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, US)

1990 Wild At Heart (David Lynch, US)

1991 Barton Fink (Ethan Coen. US)

1992 Best Intentions (Bille August, Sweden)

1993 Farewell My Concubine

(Chen Kaige, China)

1993 The Piano (Jane Campion, Australia)

1994 Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, US)

1995 Underground (Emir Kusturica,

France/Germany/Hungary)

1996 Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh, GB)

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