Cannes Film Festival: the Palme d'Or effect

Time Out explores the fortunes of the past decade’s Palme d'Or winners


Better late than never. ‘The Tree of Life’ was all set for Cannes in 2010, but Terrence Malick decided he had some last minute changes to make. A year later, his film arrived in Cannes without its famously publicity-shy director… or so everyone thought. In fact, Malick snuck into the premiere on the sly to witness his film polarise critics (boos and cheers) first hand.

Malick is the only director in the past decade not have picked his award up in person. ‘The Tree of Life’ went on to be nominated for three Oscars but came away empty-handed: the Academy, you sense, don’t take so kindly to a snub.

Well, not even a Palme d’Or win was likely to take Thai director Apitchatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul’s beautifully surreal (it features sex between a woman and a catfish) oddity to the multiplex. The story of a man looking back on his life as he approaches death, Cannes jury president Tim Burton described ‘Uncle Boonmee…’ as being like ‘a beautiful, strange dream’.

Accepting the award, Weerasethakul was typically opaque; ‘I would like to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand who made it possible for me to be here.’ The film grossed $1.2 million worldwide.

He won the Palme d’Or for the second time with ‘Amour’, just three years after his first garland in 2009. After directing his first film age 46, Michael Haneke has built a reputation as one of the most important auteurs working today, in part with a string of big Cannes wins. He took home the Grand Prix for ‘The Piano Teacher’ (2001) and best director with ‘Hidden’ (2005), but the Palme d’Or eluded him until ‘The White Ribbon’.

Shot in black and white, and chronicling village life in the run-up to World War I, this was arguably a less accessible film than ‘Hidden’ – a contemporary story starring two of France’s leading actors. The fact that it attained similar crossover box office success ($19.3 million compared to $16.2 million for ‘Hidden’) may have something to do with the high profile win. ‘The White Ribbon’ also earned Haneke his first Oscar nomination.

A late addition to the schedule, ‘The Class’ – the first French Palme d’Or winner in 20 years – premiered just two days before the close of the Festival in 2008, by which time all the smart money had been bet on the Italian mafia drama ‘Gomorrah’.

It seems logical that a Cannes win should guarantee an Oscar nod, but it ain’t necessarily so. Of the five films not in the English language to have won the Palme d’Or in the past 10 years, only ‘The Class’ (which follows one classroom in an inner-city Paris school over a year) and Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ have been nominated for best foreign film. Neither won.

Now here’s a film that no one was expecting to win the Palme d’Or before Cannes got underway in 2007. ‘4 Months… 3 what… and how many days?’: festival goers who couldn’t remember the title simply called it ‘The Romanian Film’.

Mungiu based his story of a college student trying to arrange an illegal abortion for her friend during Ceausescu-era Romania on the experience of a friend. And not only did it win the Palme d’Or, but ‘4 Months…’ burst out of the arthouse ghetto, grossing $9.8 million.

He won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Festival, and Ken Loach is the only Brit to have been garlanded with the Palme d’Or in the past decade. But not everyone was celebrating when his tale of the Irish war of independence against British rule scooped the top prize. Here was the Daily Mail’s verdict: ‘Why does Ken Loach hate his country so much?’

The country was clearly on Loach’s side: ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ was the director’s biggest box office success (grossing £3.9 million worldwide) – making it one of the rare exceptions where a Palme d’Or converts into commercial clout.

The year after ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, Cannes was getting back to arthouse basics. The films would be judged on ‘aesthetics’ alone, said jury head Emir Kusturica. And so the Dardenne brothers won, joining the elite club of directors to be awarded the Palme d’Or twice (they won in 1999 with ‘Rosetta’).

Their status as Cannes favourites has no doubt cemented the Dardennes’s reputation as arthouse heavyweights. Still it’s debatable how much impact a Palme d’Or win itself makes: their most recent film, ‘The Kid With a Bike’, won the runners-up Grand Prix last year, but went on to become the brothers’ most successful film in the UK.

After a 15-minute standing ovation at its premiere, few were in any doubt. Never mind that a documentary hadn’t won the Palme d’Or in 50 years: Michael Moore was an instant odds-on favourite to collect the Festival’s top prize for his Bush-baiting Iraq war exposé, and so it came to pass.

Moore hoped to repeat the coup at the Oscars, entering ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ for best picture rather than best documentary. That didn’t play well with the Academy’s conservative voters and he walked away empty-handed. Still, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ bucked the Palme d’Or trend for modest box office performance, grossing a mighty $200 million worldwide.

Everyone was agreed: Lars von Trier looked like a dead cert to pick up his second Palme d’Or in three years for ‘Dogville’ (though many critics would have liked Nuri Bilge Ceylan to win for ‘Uzak’). Instead, the jury asked permission to award Gus Van Sant the Festival’s two big prizes: the Palme d’Or and best director.

Even with that double whammy under its belt, ‘Elephant’, a fictional account of a Columbine-style school massacre, made little commercial impact, grossing just $1.3 million in the US.
Cannes was just the start of an awards smash ‘n’ grab that ended at the Oscars with Roman Polanski being awarded best director. Interestingly, ‘The Pianist’ is the only Palme d’Or recipient in the past 10 years to go on to win an Oscar, and one of the few commercial hits (grossing $120 million).

Arguably its success owes more to the film’s subject matter than the Palme d’Or: the true story of a Jewish pianist who survived in Nazi occupied Warsaw. After years dogged by scandal, here too was a reminder of Polanski’s traumatic childhood: a prisoner in the Kraków Ghetto, he watched his parents being shipped to concentration camps (his mother died in Auschwitz).

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