The town famous for the expensive spirit is also a mecca for carnage and suspense. Richard Gilbert visits the world's largest thriller film festival
Cognac is an improbable place to experience a cinematic crime wave. But every April this sleepy, prosperous town, 75 miles north of Bordeaux, is the headquarters of screen murder, mayhem and suspense when it hosts the largest thriller film festival in the world.

Last Sunday, Jacqueline Bisset, as president of the jury, awarded the grand prix of this unique event to Face, directed by Antonia Bird and starring Robert Carlyle. That's two British successes at Cognac in the last few years, as Petits Meurtres Entre Amis (better known as Shallow Grave) won in 1995.

New films from Canada, the UK, the US, Norway and Hong Kong competed for the main prizes. But the high-street Pathe cinema was packed from morning to midnight with scores of other thrillers outside the competition. There were policiers - or polars, as the French like to call them - from Australia, Japan and France, retrospectives on Hong Kong directors, European premieres of American independent thrillers, French TV thrillers and shorts.

This festival could not be more different from the bedlam of Cannes that follows next month. There are no mountains, no beaches and no dramatic landscapes in the Cognac area. Instead you find thousands of neat vineyards, Romanesque churches and cobbled streets with signposts pointing to Hennessy, Martell and Camus. There are no stretch limos, backbiting or big business deals. This is a celebratory festival for all those who love thrillers and suspense films.

Mark Evans, the director of Resurrection Man, was surprised that his raw film was seen by the French selectors as a policier for this festival. "I take it as a compliment that the French think its production values fulfil the genre requirement. The enthusiasm and knowledge of the locals here is amazing. By the crush barriers, outside the cinema, they greet an obscure Welsh director as if I was Catherine Deneuve."

Resurrection Man was the most violent film screened. Each year there are louder mutterings from the Cognac barons, the festival's main sponsors, about the graphic violence of contemporary thrillers. When the festival began in 1982, Cognac expected to show films in the tradition of The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Rififi. The organisers were hoping to link the town and the drink with the film noir tradition where heroes in trench-coats walk down shadowy, rain-slicked streets to meet femmes fatales called Velma. Instead they have been seeing bodies exploding in slow motion in torrents of blood. They do not want Cognac to turn into a splatterfast.

But Evans, like the French critics at the festival, defends the new style of thrillers. "The selectors of the films are helping to redefine the traditional thriller. With a festival like this, the French are broadening the thriller tag. Policiers reflect the decade in which they are made, just like horror films."

Cognac has a good track record in honouring important new directors before other festivals. John Dahl won the Grand Prix in 1990 for Kill Me Again, Curtis Hanson in 1992 for The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. The Coen brothers won a prize in 1985 for Blood Simple, well before Cannes spotted them.

Jacqueline Bisset's presence this year maintained the festival's tradition of sprinkling Cognac with big names from the US as well as inviting top French actors and directors. In the past few years there have been lavish hommages to guests such as Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and Brooke Shields. Claude Chabrol, the festival president, was absent this year because he was making his 52nd thriller. He once described Cognac to me as "four days of delight, surrounded by thrillers, with a glass always close at hand".

France has a glut of film festivals - there are nearly 100 every year. A dedicated cinephile can choose from a bewildering variety: women's films in Creteil, horror and fantasy at Gerardmer, Third World films in Nantes, Latin American in Biarritz, British films in Dinard; animation in Annecy, Nordic films in Rouen. However, there are few film festivals that can match Cognac for local involvement. There are parades, street theatre acts and film music played by brass bands. Local shops reflect the thriller theme in their window displays. A baker makes revolver-shaped croissants, and the chemist once filled his windows with bottles labelled "Arsenic". The local police chief turns out to be a connoisseur of thrillers and offers his professional verdict on the cop films being shown.

The festival highlight for the public is a ceremony, parodying Hollywood Boulevard, when the stars press their hands into slabs of wet cement and autograph them. Cognac is also one of the few festivals with a Prix du Public which gives local cinema-goers the opportunity to vote for their favourite film in the competition. The winner this year was a well crafted Canadian film, La Conciergerie, directed by Michael Poulette.

Cognac is an intriguing paradox. How did the town that produces 140 million bottles of the expensive spirit every year become Europe's centre of screen carnage? It was originally a commercial decision, prompted by declining sales of Cognac in France in the early Eighties. Whenever French towns want to raise their profile, they start a film festival. Lionel Chouchan, an experienced film festival organiser, recommended that Cognac should create a cinematic cocktail with a thriller theme.

"Suspense films have a very strong following in France. Intellectuals take them very seriously, and there has always been a cult following for B-movies and films noirs," says Chouchan. "I knew that most screen cops drank whisky. But, as a bit of a sly joke, I advised Cognac to associate its own drink with the world of thriller films and literature."

The timing was ideal because a new generation of French film-makers and writers was popularising policiers. One manifesto defined the new writers and directors as "renovators of traditional detective stories, steeped in modernity, who dip their pens in city sewers and hum the tunes of rock'n' roll. We want film heroes who cross Machine-Gun Kelly and Scarface with Dostoevsky's Idiot".

Today there are magazines devoted to thriller films and novels, and in Paris, Bilipo (Bibliotheque des Litteratures Policieres) is the largest thriller library in the world with over 40,000 books.

A combination of brandy and thrillers clearly affects some of the festivaliers. At the closing dinner, held in a cathedral-sized distillery, one of them described the contrast between the criminal violence seen on screen and the luxury taste represented by Cognac as "a piquant paradox". "The contradiction should be enjoyed, just like the ambivalence of the detective in the best thrillers." I'll drink to that.