The most memorable Cannes Film Festival controversies

·7-min read
Lars Von Trier and Vincent Gallo have both provoked outcries at the Cannes Film Festival. (Getty)
Lars Von Trier and Vincent Gallo have both provoked outcries at the Cannes Film Festival. (Getty)

Some people make the rookie mistake of going to Cannes to report on the films. But oftentimes, it’s the off-screen mayhem that makes the headlines…

Ah, the Cannes Film Festival. The festival that on paper attracts people from around the world who love and cherish the art of film. Then, for good measure, they respond by either booing films, or applauding them for so long that everyone has to pretend toilet matters do not need attending to.

Cannes is always good value for its controversies and flare ups though.

Read more: The biggest films at Cannes 2022

Here are five of the most memorable from over the years…

Down with this sort of thing

Martin Scorsese with Jodie Foster and Robert de Niro at Cannes Film Festival in May 1976. (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Martin Scorsese with Jodie Foster and Robert de Niro at Cannes Film Festival in May 1976. (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

We may as well get the jeering out of the way, not least because it seems to bear precious little relation to the quality of what’s on screen. The booing of movies. Not enough rubbish, either: stone cold classics.

Take Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The 1976 feature — beaten by Rocky at the Oscars no less — is widely regarded as a flat-out masterpiece today. But when it took home the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or, the film was roundly booed by festival attendees.

The Pulp Fiction team at Cannes: (L-R) Samuel L Jackson, Maria de Medeiros, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta. (Sygma via Getty Images)
The Pulp Fiction team at Cannes: (L-R) Samuel L Jackson, Maria de Medeiros, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta. (Sygma via Getty Images)

Quentin Tarantino faced a similar response from some quarters when his 1994 feature Pulp Fiction won, and was duly booed as well. The difference was QT turned back to the crowd and just stuck his finger up at them.

Had Scorsese been in town to collect the Palm D’Or nearly two decades before, maybe he’d have been tempted…

Down with comfortable shoes

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 18:  A close up of Eva Herzigova's High Heels on the red carpet of The Chopard Trophy held at the Martinez Hotel during the 62nd International Cannes Film Festival on May 18th, 2009 in Cannes, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Eva Herzigova's High Heels during the 62nd International Cannes Film Festival, 2009. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

A furore sprung up in 2012, when the list of films in contention for Cannes’ Palm d’Or was released. Unlike the Oscars — whose Best Picture shortlist runs to ten films maximum — this particular longlist had 22 films on. Not one of them was directed by a woman.

This was reported as if it was the first time but, of course, that was far from the case. It’s not as if the good films weren’t out there, they just weren’t getting recognition.

Rooney Mara, Todd Hayne and Cate Blanchett attends at the
Rooney Mara, Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett attends the Carol Premiere during the 68th Cannes Film Festival. (Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 2012 though, several filmmakers banded together to sign a letter penned to the French newspaper Le Monde, declaring “men love their women to have depth, but only when it comes to their cleavage”.

Cannes of course took this to heart. In 2015, it thus turned away some women from the premiere of the film Carol because their stilettos weren’t tall enough for the red carpet. No high heels, no way in.

Kristen Stewart attends the screening of Blackkklansman during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival, 2018.  (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Kristen Stewart attends the screening of Blackkklansman during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival, 2018. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

A swift response came from the festival declaring this was no official rule, but the damage was done.

It did, though, give us the moment a few years later when Kristen Stewart walked the red carpet, stopped half way down, took her heels off, and carried on walking…

Angry (dead) birds

Photo-call of 24 Hour Party People in Cannes. (Getty Images)
Photo-call of 24 Hour Party People in Cannes. (Getty Images)

You’ve got to make your mark at Cannes if you’re trying to get your movie noticed. And sometimes, you need a good stunt.

Thus, the team promoting 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s terrific account of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s and 90s, came up with a brainwave: pigeons!

Actor Danny Cunningham, playing Shaun Ryder in the film, led a bunch of the film’s performers as they duly headed to a Cannes beach and attacked each other with, er, dead pigeons. They’d brought them across especially from the UK for the stunt.

They were invited to leave by security, but not before Cunningham had been wounded by deceased animals.

Ebert vs Gallo: Dawn Of Justice

Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny at the Cannes premiere of The Brown Bunny in 2003. (Getty Images)
Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny at the Cannes premiere of The Brown Bunny in 2003. (Getty Images)

Stories of filmmakers and critics not seeing eye to eye are too frequent to really make headline news. A story of an independent filmmaker going toe-to-toe with America’s most respected critic of the time – the late Roger Ebert? Well, that travelled the world.

Ebert was one of the (many) sharp critics of actor/director’s Vincent Gallo film The Brown Bunny, a movie infamous for including a scene of, er, explicit ‘mouth interaction’ that wasn’t actually acted.

Roger Ebert (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)
Roger Ebert (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)

Ebert called the movie 'the worst film in the history of the festival' — there’s some competition there — with Gallo blasting that Ebert was a 'fat pig' with 'the physique of a slave trader'.

Ebert’s riposte gave the story even more legs. “It is true that I am fat” he declared, “but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny”.

Lars von Trier

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 18: (L-R) Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, director Lars Von Trier and actor Willem Dafoe attend the 'Antichrist' press conference held at the Palais Des Festivals during the 62nd International Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2009 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, director Lars Von Trier and Willem Dafoe attend the Antichrist press conference. (Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)

We end with the man who gets a whole section to himself.

The Danish filmmaker first fully attracted the ire of Cannes off the back of his 2009 film Antichrist. So unimpressed was the festival’s ecumenical jury, it invented a special ‘anti-prize’ to try and get across how much the collective voters hated the film.

In a PR gift to von Trier, it labelled the movie "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lars Von Trier and Kirsten Dunst at the photo call for Melancholia during the 64th Cannes International Film Festival. (Corbis via Getty Images)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lars Von Trier and Kirsten Dunst at the photo call for Melancholia during the 64th Cannes International Film Festival. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Von Trier was not deterred. He returned in 2011 with the film Melancholia, which was earning positive reviews. At the press conference for it however, he sat next to its stars — Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg — and started declaring that “I understand Hitler” and joking “how do I get out of this? Okay I’m a Nazi”.

It takes a lot for Cannes to ban a high-profile filmmaker from its festival. Von Trier managed to find the line and finally cross it. The festival banned the director declaring him 'persona non grata', and he eventually apologised saying "I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi".

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 14:  (L-R) Actress Sofie Grabol, director Lars von Trier and actor Matt Dillon attend
(L-R) Sofie Grabol, Lars von Trier and Matt Dillon attend The House That Jack Built Photocall during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Even then it didn’t last: he was allowed back in seven years later with The House That Jack Built, to predictable results. After 100 people reportedly walked out of it's Cannes debut, Von Trier said: “I’m not sure if they hated it enough, though. If it gets too popular, I’ll have a problem. But the reception seemed just about right, I think.”

At the rate he’s going, expect him back in town to burn some more bridges in the next year or two…

Watch a trailer for The House That Jack Built

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