Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes 2007: At 60, looking back on magic and mirth

This year, Cannes turned 60. When the Festival unrolled on May 16, few would have had any doubt that it was the world’s best, where cinema and celebrity produced magic and mirth.

It still does.

Established to counter the Venice Film Festival that often served as a platform for Nazi misinformation, Cannes had a rough takeoff. Its first edition on September 1, 1939, could barely last 48 hours before Hitler’s army began its destructive march. Cannes screened just one film, Hollywood’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and the guests had to return.

There was no Festival on the French Riviera till 1946, when peace returned and the world began thinking up of newer kinds of entertainment. That year, Cannes screened movies from 21 countries and gave away 11 Palms. Among them were David Leans’s “Brief Encounter” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City”.

If that year Cannes thought that all would be well thereafter, it was mistaken. The Festival had to grapple with bad black and white prints that rarely had subtitles and were obsessed with political ideology and dogma.

And in May 1968, the Festival had to pull its curtain down five days before its closing date, because two of the country’s best known critics and film-makers, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard stopped a screening in solidarity with students’ and workers’ demonstrations. Terrence Young and Roman Polanski walked out of the jury.

But Cannes survived and lived to tell glorious tales. This year, the Festival will show 1000 movies, and 15,000 critics and others from the industry would be in attendance at what has turned out to be a place for not just fascinating cinema, but also rip-roaring parties, where motion and movement are discussed and debated over endless glasses of wine and plates of delectable cuisine.

Over the years, Cannes pushed and promoted names that were struggling to worm their way out of the cans and fly into reels of celluloid. Truffaut’s New Wave grew out of Cannes’ dark auditoriums. His “400 Blows” won a top prize, and he was barely 28. George Lucas, Ken Loach and Steven Soderbergh were some of the many who screened their first features at Cannes. Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, went on to become a cult work.

While Cannes’ affair with Hollywood has seen many bitter-sweet battles, the Festival remains a launch-pad for American cinema. Last year, we saw how “The Da Vinci Code” created a storm, with the Festival holding many more shows than usual. In fact, the Press screenings of the movie began a day earlier. This May, Cannes awaits yet another Hollywood big bang, “Ocean’s 13”.

Today, Cannes is a bowl of joy with little malice or remorse that once goaded it to start the Festival. The French were furious when Venice gave away its top prize in 1938 to Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, panned as Nazi propaganda. Cannes created its own Festival the following year and said that it would serve the free world.

One supposes it still does, but the fact that not enough German cinema gets showcased there provokes an uneasy feeling in me. Is Cannes truly free?

(Webposted May 16 2007)