'68 unrest forced fest to change stance

Originally ran March 27, 1997
LONDON – The ’60s marked a period of dramatic development for the Cannes Film Festival. The turbulence of 1968, with screenings brought to an undignified halt by a groundswell of radical protest, ensured that if Cannes were to survive, it would have to abandon its lofty stance. Like all such European events, the fest then catered to the locals (who could still buy tickets for most screenings), the visiting intelligentsia, and the stars. Americans were thin on the ground, and the resourceful journalist would head for the Petit Carlton cafe-brasserie rather than the Eden Roc.

Best of all, the press screenings commenced at 11 a.m. instead of the bleary-eyed 8:30 a.m. start that prevails today. The press corps num-bered just 700 in the mid- ’60s, compared to more than 3,000 three decades on.

As the decade unfurled, Cannes remained a showplace for national pride, with government departments and associations selecting the film to be screened in the fest’s official section. Each show was preceded with a public-address announcement of the film’s nationality. Even in 1969, it was still a case of “les Etats-Unis praysentent.. Ay-ah-zee Ree-air! (Easy Rider”). Most parties and receptions were hosted by individual countries. One of the most memorable, and typical, took place in 1967, after the triumphant screening of Yugoslavia’s “Happy Gypsies,” with hundreds of guests being bused and limo’ed to a chateau in the hills behind Cannes, where they could fest on immense buffets and drink the night away.

If austerity took hold in the years that followed the “events” of ’68, corporate generosity had prevailed at earlier festivals. Perhaps no freebie outclassed the umbrellas, in a variety of pastel hues, that were distributed to all and sundry by Europa Film of Stockholm to celebrate the screening of “Elvira Madigan” in 1967.

The decade had begun with an explosion of talent. The 1960 Palme d’Or went to “La Dolce Vita,” but for many the revelation of the festi-val was Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” along with Grigori Heifitz’s “Lady With a Little Dog” and Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring.” Prizes in subsequent years went to predictable favorites (“Viridiana,” “The Leopard,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” ) until suddenly, in 1965, the jury took a risk and gave the Palme d’Or to Richard Lester’s anarchic romp “The Knack,” encapsulating the freewheeling zest of the mid-’60s.

The Marche had been established in 1959, but made little impact on the festival until almost 10 years later. Assiduous journalists would sniff out the occasional truffle from its haphazard schedule, even if the more valuable discoveries were on view in the Critics’ Week sidebar or in random screenings at the Star on the Rue d’Antibes or the long-vanished Le Club theater in the Rue 24 Aout. Some major films (Resnais’ “La Guerre Est Finie,” for example) premiered at midnight to a stuffed house in the Star, long before such places were twinned and tripled.

Countries like Australia, New Zealand and most of the Scandi nations had not yet invaded the Croisette and the Rue d’Antibes with their screenings and hospitality suites.

This was the heyday of Japanese cinema, with titles like “Onibaba,” “Harakiri,” “Kwaidan” and, notably, Kon Ichikawa’s magnificent account of the “Tokyo Olympiad.” But the Communist countries of Eastern Europe yielded many of the finest revelations of the period at Cannes, including Dusan Makavejev with “Man Is Not a Bird,” Miklos Jancso with “The Round-Up,” Istvan Szabo with “Father.” There was always a thrill of anticipation when the aging film historian Georges Sadoul would limp to the front of the beloved “P’tite Salle” (the smaller theater inside the Palais, reserved for the Critics’ Week and other offbeat screenings) and introduce Ewald Schorm or Milos Forman or Ivan Passer.

Everything seemed new — the French New Wave, Cinema Novo from Brazil, New Czech Cinema — in part because the work of so many national cinemas had just not been visible during the ’50s. The American indie film, on the other hand, did not exist, with the honorable exception of John Cassavetes. Controversial, experimental works like “Woman in the Dunes” (Japan), “Hunger” (Denmark) and “Antonio das Mortes” (Brazil) were snapped up at once for distribution in most territories. U.S. distributors like Leo Dratfield (Contemporary Films), Tom Brandon (Brandon Films), Cy Harvey and then Bill Becker (Janus) and Dan Talbot (New Yorker) already knew the sights and smells of Cannes, before the big U.S. papers gave substantial coverage to the event. Stalwarts like Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review and Albert Johnson from Film Quarterly could, though, be found at all the right screenings.

Cannes in the ’60s did not enjoy the preeminence it does now. Venice and Berlin, and to some extent Locarno, were formidable peers. The festival’s French flavor, which has tended to evaporate in the Americanized ’80s and ’90s, was more pronounced. At a hotel like the Gonnet, torn down in the ’80s to make way for a garish apartment block, Louis the concierge knew the name of every guest, from humble scribe to minor star. No foreign films in competition were subtitled, and earphone commentary proved desultory at best. Jury deliberations and official gatherings were conducted in French (although the late Richard Roud pioneered the art of translating under pressure at press conferences).

The press corps could still be catered for at a single, informal junket at nearby Mandelieu where Orson Welles relaxed at the long picnic tables after the screening of “Falstaff” in 1966. Copies of the big Variety film annual could be had from the lobby of the Carlton, dispensed by the ubiquitous Bob Hawkins. No English-language festival dailies existed, a fact that made the press bulletins, for all their inaccuracies, a vital tool for the critic or buyer.

Through some curious alchemy, Cannes not only survived the upheaval of ’68 but emerged with a stronger base. The Directors’ Fortnight was launched in 1969 to a full house in the old Rex cinema by French helmer Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and the tuxedo’d crowds could soon be seen mounting the steps of the Palais once more. As Lindsay Anderson, whose “if … ” appropriately took the Palme d’Or in 1969, once said, “The Establishment always assimilates its critics … .” And so it has proved with Cannes.

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