A beginner’s guide to the Cannes Film Festival

Copyright Cannes Film Festival

When and where is this festival?
The 2012 Cannes Film Festival will take place between 16 - 27 May and will, of course, take place on the sunny south coast of France.

Certainly sounds like somewhere movie types would go, but why should we care?
As spring gets into gear everyone knows what the biggest and loudest films of the year will be. Lord knows we’ve covered the likes of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and ‘Avengers Assemble’ enough here. Cannes serves as a chance for studios, directors and distributors to showcase the best of their artier, altogether more intelligent cinema. Not that it’s always indie films on show, last year Steven Spielberg premiered ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ at the festival, and Quentin Tarantino is a regular.

Sounds like those films would hog the limelight then.
Not quite. The opening film of the festival typically gets a lot of press as it’s always one of the most attended screenings. This year it’s Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, which stars Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. He’s a big director and he’s got some big names here but the film has the indie sensibilities that are typical of the director and it its practically bursting at the seams with whimsy. It fits with the tone of the festival much like last year’s opener, Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, which went on to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and a win for Allen’s screenplay. A lot more attention is given to the end-of-festival awards however.

If I have to sit through another awards show I swear I’m going to cry.
Don’t worry about it, the awards aren’t the glitz and glamour back-patting of the Oscars or Golden Globes. In fact in some respects they’re held in higher regard than those. It also helps that the winners aren’t typically American, in fact before Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or last year for his masterpiece ‘The Tree of Life’, you’d have to go back to 2004 for the last American winner, Michael Moore for ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’. 

Ooh, I like to see Americans lose out on awards, so how does it work?
There are the usual awards for directing and acting and then the three main prizes awarded to the films and their director. Each prize is chosen by a jury consisting of film-makers and journalists. The third most prestigious prize is the Jury Prize, which was won last year by French film ‘Polisse’. The Grand Prix award is effectively the second place prize, but the nice name removes that stigma of not being the “winner”. Last year it was won by Belgian film ‘Le Gamin au Vélo’, which was recently released in the UK as ‘The Kid with a Bike’, and Turkish film ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’.

Remind me what the most famous prize is called…
Ah yes, the Palme d’Or. It’s the top prize at the festival and it can take a film unlikely to be that successful and amplify its ambitions. The most famous winners of the prize are Francis Ford Coppola for ‘Apocalypse Now’ in 1979 and Quentin Tarantino for ‘Pulp Fiction’ in 1994. The last British winner of the prize was Ken Loach in 2006 for ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’. It’s possible for there to be two winners of each prize if the jury votes accordingly.

Is that it?
No, there are also prizes for Best First Feature Film (Caméra d’Or), best student films (the Cinéfondation prizes) and the Prix Un Certain Regard, an award given to a particularly innovative or audacious work. This year the jury for the Prix Un Certain Regard is headed by our very own Tim Roth, who starred in the Palm d’Or winning ‘Pulp Fiction’. Other awards are given independently, outside of the festival’s remit. These include prizes voted for purely by critics, the Palm Dog (you can figure that one out yourself) and the Queer Palm for LGBT-related films.

Sounds just pretentious enough without being annoying, what can we expect this year then?
There are a lot of possibilities but beyond ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ we won’t know until 19 April when the official selection and the people who make up the jury are announced. We’ll tell you what you can expect though - lots and lots of actors having their photographs taken on red carpets. And you thought that was all over when this year’s Oscars finished, ha!

Historical context is needed! What’s made Cannes so interesting in the past?
You don’t need to go back far to see why Cannes gets people’s attention. Apart from the usual celeb-spotting (Brangelina typically have a pack of paparazzi on their tails) last year was when ‘Melancholia’ director Lars von Trier made what might be considered the worst joke ever heard in the film industry. Well, it certainly caused a stir when he said he sympathised with Hitler.

Looking back further but lightening the tone a bit, the festival also has an affinity with the bikini and other such swim wear. In 2006 Sacha Baron Cohen was promoting ‘Borat’ and showed the world the now world-famous lime green mankini for the first time. Why did he think it would be the perfect place though? That would be because 53 years prior something a lot more, err, aesthetically pleasing happened when native Brigitte Bardot made the bikini world famous, sporting it on the beach alongside Kirk Douglas who remarked, “I've never seen one of those before." Bardot eventually took the bikini off for the cameras. Oh those French!

Any other memorable moments?
In 2008 Brazilian actress Sandra Corveloni won the acting prize for her very first film role. Little did the judging panel know, however, that she couldn’t accept the prize because she was in a coma. She has since recovered. Kathy Burke won in 1997 for her performance in ‘Nil by Mouth’ but only found out while in the Islington branch of Sainsburys. She quickly boarded the next flight to make it down to the south of France for the ceremony.

It’s not all funny stories and celebs-gone-mad though. In 1989 Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ saw him become the youngest winner of the Palme d’Or at 26. His film was a surprise decision which lead to a boom in the indie film making business. The Weinstein brother’s Miramax company also started using the prize for promotional reasons, a common practice nowadays

Finally the Palme d’Or win for ‘Pulp Fiction’ legitimised Quentin Tarantino in the eyes of Hollywood’s elite, which in turn made the eventual Best Picture Oscar nomination a lot more likely than it ever would have been before. It’s just the tip of the iceberg but those last two examples prove how good a force Cannes can be, and why it deserves our attention.