Twelve days and twenty in-competition films later, the Steven Spielberg-led jury at the Cannes Film Festival awarded Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color the much-anticipated Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor. While the past two years have seen more easily predicted winners — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist — this year’s selection provided a cliffhanger of sorts, with films like the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (which was awarded the Grand Prize) and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty as other considerable frontrunners.
Perhaps the most buzzed-about film of the selection, Kechiche’s is a sexually explicit coming of age drama featuring a young French lesbian couple. As Robbie Collin writes for The Telegraph, it is “the rapturous opposite of dirty old man cinema.” Without being overly presumptuous, it is difficult to separate a win for Kechiche’s unique, beautiful film with the politics of its subject matter. Critics have lauded its lengthy, realistic sex scenes (Collins writes that they “must surely be amongst the most graphic in the history of non-pornographic cinema”), along with its rejection of the subdued elements inherent to other movies of sexual identity. Instead, as Vulture’s Jada Yuan put it, “what’s surprising about the film beyond its frank eroticism is just how much weight it gives to the messy reality of relationships and sexual identity.” Cannes’ history reveals a distinct and long-lived connection between the art of films the festival exhibits and the political or societal undertones they convey.
Since its inception in 1948, the Cannes Film Festival has become the arbiter of good taste, a 12-day catwalk, and the most extensive display of the world’s who’s-who. Each year, for two weeks in May, the otherwise quiet and quaint Côte d’Azur town becomes a French rendition of Oz. This is the site of a ubiquitous Brigitte Bardot emerging from the water and perhaps the beginnings of celebrity photography as an enterprise.
But as much as glamour has become an integral part of the Cannes experience, over the decades, it has become nearly impossible to separate the festival from its politics. The festival was born from political friction between France and Italy during Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. As of 1932, Venice reigned as site of the world’s premiere film festival. In 1938 — following to loss of Jean Renoir’s anti-fascist Grand Illusion for the top prize — Georges Prade, former Parisian mayor, conceived the idea of a French-based festival to give Venice a run for its money. His primary concern was that Venice had begun placing politics over art, thus corrupting the festival system. The festival would be held in Cannes to increase tourism in the south, boasting its primary goal to promote international collaboration in the art of film. Soon enough, films became critiques in and of themselves. By the festival’s 21st year, it became nearly impossible to keep the art of film separate from the crumbling world that surrounded it.
The 1968 festival would forever remain a reminder of how the art and magic of film cannot shed its relationship to reality. Paris had recently experienced a number of student uprisings and worker riots, beginning with a riot at the University of Nanterre on March 22. However the festival intended to go on as planned. Mid-way through, directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut called for an unprecedented premature end to the proceedings. On May 18, before the premiere of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappé, Godard announced that the film should not be displayed against the consent of its director. A slew of directors then hung onto the curtains to keep them from opening the film and Godard cried, “We do not want a Festival of vanities and socializing, which means nothing … We want a festival of dialogue.” With that, Cannes’ 1968 exhibition was cut short.
Of the 1968 festival, the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Far be it from me to suggest that the fabric of society didn’t need mending, but it’s hard not to lament that in the process of fixing it, a group of fiercely original and socially conscious works of art were swept under the rug.” Perhaps, then, art and politics shouldn’t be regarded as mutually exclusive entities. In 2004, Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 received the Palme d’Or, and with the win, came the buzz over the film’s political message. The long-time question of the relationship between the art and politics of film emerged once again.
Today, Cannes is the premiere film festival and film market, allowing movies that would not otherwise be on display to find their way to international audiences. Likewise, the Palme d’Or has become an industry seal of approval, foreshadowing box office success in some cases or simply a widespread nod of approval from a discerning and renowned jury in others.
This year, however, the festival lacks the political rhetoric of its past—a hotel room jewelry heist became the pinnacle of controversy. But perhaps there is something to this year’s winner, a film that bravely tackles sexuality and experimentation in a way few films have achieved. Its win may be one that urges viewers to absorb the art of such films and turn them into political and social conversations. Only then will the rift between art and politics that led to the conception of the Cannes Film Festival begin to close.