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Frames from Cannes
Sexy Sirens and Political Propagandists
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Starlet with photographers, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979. The Cannes Film Festival (French: le Festival de Cannes), founded in 1946, is one of the world's oldest, most influential and prestigious film festivals alongside Venice and Berlin. The private festival is held annually (usually in May) at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, in the resort town of Cannes, in the south of France. Wikipedia

The Cannes Film Festival has had its undying admirers and cruel critics, and it has been described variously as the queen of all and a prostitute. Arguably the world's top movie event, certainly several notches higher than even Hollywood's Oscars, Cannes has also been debased as one shamelessly selling art. But, the Festival is an extravaganza of sheer cinema, monolithic market and titillating glamour. This is irrefutable.

Ever since Cannes first came into being in 1939, it has seduced millions of men and women into slavery of the French Riviera's sun, surf and screens. But this seduction has not always been sexy, suave and smooth. The first edition that kicked off on September 1 ended as soon as it began: that day Germany took Poland, and two days later, France and England declared war, and the beaches of Cannes — decorated with a huge cardboard model of the Notre-Dame Cathedral to promote William Dieterle's adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" – lost their fizz.

Planned with a clear political agenda, the Festival's first chapter may have been ironically shot down by a war, but politics would remain an essential ingredient of Cannes. Here are two examples. In May 1968 as the Festival was on, a huge student protest in Paris snowballed into night long clashes with the police. Termed "The Night of the Barricades" ,the street fight in the city's Latin Quarter led to major workers' unions supporting the students. Though the Government prevented much of the news from reaching Cannes, the little that filtered in caused unrest among the guests. Young film directors led by Francois Truffaut – who was already a persona non-grata at the Festival because of his consistent and caustic criticism of the annual event – pulled the curtain down a few days after Cannes opened.

Years later in 2004, when Cannes awarded its top Golden Palm to Michael Moore's documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," it was seen as a political decision that could have been made as easily by that year's jury president, Quentin Tarantino, as it could have by Jacques Chirac or by anybody else who wanted John Kerry instead of George Bush to win the U.S. elections.

Cannes' political face would seem like a foregone conclusion if we were to look at what motivated its creation in the first place. When French helmer Jean Renoir's anti-war masterpiece, "La Grande Illusion" won the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, Hitler was so angry that he banned the movie in Germany and Italy. A year later, when the Venice jury wanted to honour an American film, Berlin put pressure at the last minute, and the top prize, Mussolini Cup, was shared by two utterly Fascist propaganda works – Leni Riefenstahl's documentary "Olympiad" (on the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and Goffredo Alessandrini's "Lucciano Serra: Pilote" . Such blatant rigging and Fascist cheerleading angered especially the French contingent, and Philippe Erlanger, a civil servant, who was part of it, returned home convinced that a counter festival – of the free world – was absolutely essential. That was the seed out of which the Cannes Film Festival grew and bloomed.

However, to say that Cannes was all political would be missing the point. There was enough shimmer and shine to sweeten and stimulate the Festival, enough to divert and distract the detractors. And some of it was salacious. In the early 1950s, a very young Brigitte Bardot frolicked on the beach in a bikini with Kirk Douglas in his trunks, a leading American star of the day. In what has been described as Jane meets Tarzan, Bardot and Douglas gave the tens of photographers there sizzling shots. And when he used her hair as "pretend moustache" , the scene smacked of Freudian tendency.

In 1954, the paparazzi had more to feast on. Starlet Simone Silva, hungering for publicity, sashayed into a photo shoot of American actor Robert Mitchum. In a mini grass skirt and a transparent pink top, she ran into his arms and decided to go topless. Mitchum, who was shocked and did not quite know what was happening, gathering Silva to his chest to preserve a little of her modesty. The pictures of a topless starlet in the arms of a Hollywood star caused uproar back home, and the Cannes Festival Director had to apologise, particularly to the Americans, who threatened never to return to Cannes. It took a lot to convince them that Cannes was not aiming at fabricating erotica, but defending cinema. Cannes tried telling the world that the Festival was by no means a huge orgy as some papers were writing. However, by the 1990s and even earlier, topless women on the beach posing for lens hounds became so common that it ceased to create commotion or consternation. What did was not seduction on the sands but selections of movies. Some misses were glaring.

British auteur Mike Leigh became a hot favourite of Cannes after his "Naked" and "Secrets and Lies" won prizes there. But in 2003, his "Vera Drake" was rejected by Thierry Fremaux, who had taken over from veteran Gilles Jacob. A few months later, Venice chose "Vera Drake" and it won the festival's prestigious Golden Lion. Leigh, somewhat bitter at being snubbed at Cannes, told the audience after receiving the trophy that he was happy that Fremaux had not taken it. Otherwise, "I could not have been here" , Leigh threw the gag and brought the house down!

Though Fremaux is young, easy, dynamic and with no known biases, his reign has been a rather dry run for Indian cinema. While the 1980s were a great time for India at the French Riviera with Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others showcasing their works, the 1990s and the 2000s Cannes saw very little of Indian cinema. And that little was disastrous pick: Shaji Karun's "My Own," Murali Nair's "Death Throne" and "A Story that Begins at the End" and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Devdas" disappointed and distressed Cannes critics.

But Fremaux was unperturbed. He once told me that the Festival must be open to all kinds of cinema, including Bollywood. So it is now, though India seems to have been relegated to the market for some years now. Not that it is entirely unimportant: there have been times when critics have found gems in the market, gems that Cannes official selectors missed. Yet, to be part of the Festival" official sections is not quite the same thing as being in the Market.

For, all said and done, Cannes remains the world's premier Festival, certainly much ahead of Venice or Berlin. One important reason for Cannes being where it is, is the stability it has always enjoyed. For the first 50 years of Italy's Republic, there were 60 governments and as many heads of the Venice Film Festival. But Cannes had Robert Favre Le Bret leading it for 43 years, Jacob for 25 years, and now Fremaux would probably head it for as long, if not longer. Therein lies Cannes' secret of success.

The Cannes Film Festival begins May 13, 2009.

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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