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Photo: Cannes Film Festival 2022
Catching Up on a Bit of Film History
To track the Cannes Film Festival is to track a large portion of film history. Obviously, a single film festival won’t be able to encapsulate the incredibly wide breadth of Cinema, which is partly why there are several major film festivals throughout the world. (For instance, a movie that premiered at Sundance might not be the kind of movie to premiere at Cannes.) While Venice is the oldest film festival of note, Cannes remains the most prestigious; it’s guaranteed to host the biggest names in the industry, both inside and (especially) outside of Hollywood. While the Academy Awards are the most famous film awards in the world, there is an inherent layer of cynicism to the Oscars that makes them harder to appreciate — although, of course, Academy voters have surprised us before. No, if you’re a cinephile, you would probably put more stock in the Palme d’Or winner (the top award at Cannes) than the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The first Cannes Film Festival was held in 1946, right after World War II had ended, and, barring a few bumps in the road, it has happened annually ever since. Hundreds of movies have been shown at Cannes, many of them worth watching — but is there a quick-and-easy way to broaden one’s horizons with regard to this legendary festival’s history? Not really, but there is a good first step: watch some Palme d’Or winners. There are well over seventy Palme d’Or winners (there were ten in the festival’s first year alone), and all these movies have at least one thing that’s special about them. With that said, I’ll be refraining from recommending winners that you may have already seen — with one exception.
5 Palme d’Or Winners
‘The Cranes Are Flying’ (1957)
The oldest movie to make my list is also, to this day, the only Russian production to have won the Palme d’Or. Georgian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov only directed a handful or so features in his lifetime, but ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ feels like the work of a stone-cold master. While its story is nothing special on paper, and its view of everyday Soviet life is perhaps too rose-tinted, there is a deep earnestness with which the film conveys wartime trauma, lost love, and a sort of proto-feminist narrative. If you watch ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ for any reason, it’s to sit in awe at the endlessly inventive and energetic camerawork, headed by cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky (whose body of work is also, sadly, too small), with a camera that swerves, dollies, tilts, practically does cartwheels from moment to moment. Today, you could quite possibly replicate such cinematography with an iPhone, but ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ accomplished the same (and more) with equipment that was a hundred times more expensive and a thousand times heavier.
‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ (1964)
For modern cinephiles, French filmmaker Jacques Demy is not as well-known as his wife and fellow auteur, Agnès Varda — which is not entirely unearned. Demy’s filmography is more sporadic and uneven than Varda’s, but he really worked some magic when at his best, and ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ might be the most perfect example of Demy’s greatness. The plot of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ is actually quite similar to that of ‘The Cranes Are Flying’, about young lovers who are separated by war, but Demy’s film is a musical. Not only is ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ a musical, but virtually every line of dialogue is sung; yes, it’s a distant precursor to what Tom Hooper attempted with his version of ‘Les Misérables’, and also a noted precursor to ‘La La Land.’
‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ is a much less cynical movie than either of its descendants, though; it’s an hour and a half (a briskly paced movie) of movie magic, with the colorful art direction, the Oscar-nominated score by the late Michel Legrand, and a star-making performance by a young (and, thankfully, still with us) Catherine Deneuve. I used to think that I just don’t like musicals — that musicals are all cloying, dull, and emotionally empty; as it turns out, ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ showed me that this only applies to most musicals, in accordance with Sturgeon’s Law.
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‘Paris, Texas’ (1984)
A little story: I watched ‘Paris, Texas’ with a few friends, all of whom are seasoned veterans when it comes to movies. After the movie ended, we had a debate, because most of us didn’t see why ‘Paris, Texas’ has garnered a skyscraper-high reputation over the years. For me, the film revealed itself in the third act, which, without spoiling, recontextualizes everything that came before it. The story of ‘Paris, Texas’ is quite simple: a man has apparently been stricken with amnesia, and he has to rediscover his relationships with his brother, his son, and the estranged mother of his child.
Despite being basically a German production (director Wim Wenders, plus Nastassja Kinski), this is a golden slice of Americana — from the highways to the ‘80s fashion sense to the unique subspecies of ennui that would later come to define American independent productions, ‘Paris, Texas’ feels like an American indie movie from the ‘90s that just happened to come out in 1984. I wouldn’t say this is the least accessible of my recommendations (that would be ‘Taste of Cherry’), but it’s arguably the least assuming from the outset. Save ‘Paris, Texas’ for a calm night, though, and if you sit down with it and give it the proper time of day, you might get sucked into it.
‘Taste of Cherry’ (1997)
You very likely don’t know this, because I’m just a name attached to an article on an entertainment site, and also because I often like to cover science fiction, but my favorite director never worked on any science fiction, or really anything belonging to any “genre” — except for his own. Abbas Kiarostami, from the 1980s to his death in 2016, was arguably the leading filmmaker to come out of Iran, having won big awards at Cannes and Venice. ‘Taste of Cherry’ is one of the more controversial Palme d’Or winners; not only did it win in a tie (with Shōhei Imamura’s ‘The Eel’), but it also received a scathing review from Roger Ebert. I disagree strongly with Ebert.
‘Taste of Cherry’ is about a man who, for reasons he never tells anyone, wants to commit suicide, with the bulk of the film having him look for someone to bury his body after he’s dead. The protagonist meets a few people from disparate backgrounds, all of whom try to convince him to not go through with his plans, with dubious amounts of success. However, while its premise is morbid, ‘Taste of Cherry’ is not a dour movie; if anything, it is impeccably ethereal. I recommend going into this movie with an open mind, as you’ll be taken on an emotional and philosophical journey in a way you probably won’t expect.
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It’s an obvious pick, but ‘Parasite’ really is an exceptional movie in several ways. Bong Joon-ho had made pretty good movies before (2006’s ‘The Host’ comes to mind), but he had reached a new level with ‘Parasite’, a movie that would not only win the Palme d’Or, but would become both the first Korean film to win the Academy Award for Best International Feature — and, even more unexpectedly, the first non-English film to win Best Picture. ‘Parasite’ is a film made by an entirely non-white cast and crew, a film helmed by a non-American (you may notice that none of my recommendations were directed by American directors), and a film that opened up doors for international films in the American mainstream consciousness.
I don’t need to tell you about the premise or plot of ‘Parasite’ because you’ve almost certainly watched it by now; it’s a stupidly popular movie, especially as far as non-English releases go. ‘Parasite’ may well be the greatest movie to ever be given the Palme d’Or, although that could also be recency bias talking; it is, however, indisputably, the strongest argument for artsy-fartsy film festivals like Cannes and Venice as gateways for everyday people to get into not just blockbusters, but any movie from anywhere.
What’s Your Favorite Palme d’Or Winner?
Cinephiles have it easy; 99% of the movies we watch will be, at the longest, maybe four hours long. The history of Cinema is also relatively easy to track, as it’s a rather new medium (less than two centuries old, a toddler compared to, say, music), which means that your chances of getting through a good fraction of all the films throughout history worth watching are not infinitesimal. Even so, despite all my experience and enthusiasm, I still haven’t seen ‘The Godfather Part II.’ I still haven’t seen ‘Rear Window.’ I had only seen ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ for the first time this year. My point is that you won’t get to everything, and because of how history works, you’re more likely to have experienced something that happened more recently. I could say ‘Parasite’ is the greatest movie ever made, never mind the greatest movie to ever premiere at Cannes — but ‘Parasite’ only came out three years ago, and I’ve only seen a small fraction of the movies to have been shown at Cannes in just the past three years.
“What’s your favorite Palme d’Or winner?” is a fun (if silly) question, because it makes you think about all the Palme d’Or winners you haven’t seen. Prior to a couple of years ago, I had no idea that ‘Underground’, a movie from what used to be Yugoslavia, was the Palme d’Or winner at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and I also had no idea that it would become one of my favorite movies once I saw it. Never grow complacent if you consider yourself a passionate moviegoer. Watch out for current releases, but especially watch out for the past. After all, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
By Brian Collins
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