A Personal Look Back at the Cannes Film Festival as It Celebrates 75 Years of Championing World Cinema

Not long after attending my first Cannes Film Festival almost 35 years ago, I was still green and naïve enough to ask long-time Cannes attendees why the famed French fest held such a powerful place in the pecking order of international film gatherings. The late Richard Corliss, Time magazine’s peerless and beloved film critic, answered warmly and succinctly, with his own more worldly query: “Would you rather be in Germany in the winter or the South of France in the spring?”

Corliss had a point, but in the decades since I’ve tucked my own couple of dozen Cannes fests under my belt, I’ve compiled my own list of reasons why Cannes remains the one film festival that people who’ve never been to a film festival have heard about and wish they could go to, and know that if a film has scored there, it must be worth their time.

From the late ’70s to the present Cannes, only two people, first Gilles Jacob and then Thierry Frémaux, have directed the festival.

Both have ruled with passion, both fiercely competitive and determined that the primacy of Cannes will not fade while they’re standing atop the Palais steps greeting the world’s greatest filmmakers.

Let’s start with the way that Cannes remains a major player in the awards season game. Despite the fact that the film awards season begins in earnest later and later every year — making Cannes’ May dates seemingly less attractive — here’s a quick scorecard of Oscar hits that premiered in Cannes:

The high point of the Frémaux era is Bong Joon Ho’s historic 2020 ride to the Oscar best picture award, marking the first time in history that a foreign-language film took the top Oscar prize. That run began in Cannes the previous May when “Parasite” picked up the Palme d’Or.

And before that epic triumph, there were these big awards season players:

• “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) 10 Oscar nominations including best picture following its Cannes competition bow.
• “Cold War” (2018) After a director win in Cannes, the Polish drama garnered three Oscar nominations.
• “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) The George Miller pic won six Oscars. And he’s back this year with out-of-competition drama “Three Thousand Years of Longing” with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.
• “Amour” (2013) After winning the Palme d’Or, Michael Haneke’s film scored five Oscar nominations, including a win for foreign-language film.
• “No Country for Old Men” (2007) The Joel and Ethan Coen pic won four Oscars, including best picture after bowing in Cannes.
• “Secrets and Lies” (1997) Bowed in Cannes and subsequently scored five Oscar nominations, including best picture.
• “Pulp Fiction” (1994) Seven Oscar nominations including best picture following a Palme d’Or win in Cannes.

That impressive tally of awards season wins leads inevitably to the subject of curation, which is, after all, the raison d’etre and sine qua non of all film festivals.

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The “Parasite” cast and helmer Bong Joon Ho (center back row) kicked off the film at the 2019 Cannes fest, where it started its journey to its historic best picture Oscar win. AP

In Jacob’s time, the U.S. connection grew strong as American cinema was being transformed by the powerful creative energy burst known as New Hollywood, which was driven largely by new freedoms and filmmakers who watch a lot of French New Wave films.

Jacob and his curatorial team packed the Cannes competition lineup with names including Francis Coppola, Paul Mazursky, Hal Ashby, Susan Seidelman, Bob Fosse, Dennis Hopper, Walter Hill, Michael Cimino, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman.

But as impressive as that assemblage of American auteurs is, the real Cannes bonanza of American filmmaking talents, bursting with promise and ripe for global discovery, was still around the corner. Thanks to the emerging Sundance Film Festival, the home-video boom and the alternative financing schemes that helped open doors for adventurous, low-budget film helmers, a new world of vital, fresh visions was packing the arthouses and even the multiplexes.

By the late ’80s, the American indie film boom was revving up and Jacob’s fingers were on the pulse of this New New Wave. Jacob’s juries helped supercharge the careers of future legends such Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, all of whom scored the coveted Palme d’Or in Cannes in their early filmmaking innings.

And their victories were won alongside their fellow American indie revolutionaries Spike Lee, David Mamet, Bill Duke, Hal Hartley, Abel Ferrara, Todd Haynes, John Sayles and James Gray, who all contributed to the sense that Cannes hit its 50th birthday in 1997 with the energy of a hungry young filmmaker full of Palais dreams.

That adrenaline boost from the critical American marketplace was accompanied by savvy programming picks from Asia, a special interest of the late, long-behind-the-Cannes scenes film pro/cinema consigliere Pierre Rissient.

The “Parasite” success story came on the heels of 30 years of groundbreaking Asian cinema offerings in Cannes, from filmmakers such as Wong Kar Wei, Zhang Yimou, Naomi Kawase and Jia Zhangke. Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel” shared the Palme d’Or with Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” and Hou Hsiao-Hsien turned up in competition four times in the ’90s.

Chen Kaige’s films scored five competition slots, and his 1993 arthouse hit “Farewell My Concubine” garnered the Palme d’Or (shared with future Oscar-winner Jane Campion and her hit “The Piano”).

But Cannes is more than just a grand showcase for towering filmmaking personalities. For at least 60 years, the pomp and frivolity has been paid for by the Cannes Marché, run for decades by now retiring but previously tireless Jérôme Paillard.

The festival may be where the “serious” filmmakers strut, but the market is where hucksters and the yachters ogled the talent and angled for deals that would at least pay for their €10 espressos.

That world is changing and that worries me, but thankfully there are new revenue streams and beaucoup brand launches and press stunts still brewing in the Croisette sunshine. Long may the Cannes hype wave.

But to return to the simple logic of Richard Corliss, which is essentially, “Where and how do you want to spend your time on this planet?,” I must insert my own personal biases about Cannes in answering the question, “Why Cannes?”

Is Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones” my favorite movie of all time?

Is Kieslowski’s “Red” in the Palais the greatest moviegoing moment of my life?

Have there been greater film fest moments in my life than seeing Madonna adorned in Gaultier dazzling a crowd of thousands; U2 playing live on the steps of the Palais; a begowned Emmanuelle Beart in the lobby of the Majestic; Tom Jones singing and swinging at Anjelica Huston’s beach party; treasured meals at La Mere Besson and Colombe d’Or; Elton John pounding the keys with the Mediterranean pulsing behind him; Chopard’s elegant new star bashes and delectable dance dos; dinners with the likes of pre-Palme Tarantino and post-Palme Coen brothers; a garden feast with Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte courtesy of Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory?

Why Cannes? Why the hell not?