Sunday’s New York Times offers a specious story, significantly lacking in research, about the value of Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or. While the article’s central thesis is predicated on the obvious — a Cannes prize doesn’t mean much to the success of a movie in the U.S. — it doesn’t give any context for this reality. Frankly, a Cannes prize doesn’t mean much in any country, nor does any award anywhere promise much (as David Poland notes in his dissection of the story, “Sundance has an even worse cause & effect record”).
“L’enfant,” the Dardenne brothers’ marvelous morality fable and winner of last year’s Palme, may have not made $2 million at the box office, but that’s because it’s in French and focuses on the dour conditions of the under-class. And as has been written about extensively before, there are several changing factors in the U.S. market that make it harder and harder for foreign-language art-films to perform here. (And with box office receipts nearing $500,000, “L’enfant” is a hit — for what it is. What’s the point of comparing it to MI:3? Just silly.)
But if you look at Cannes winners past, the story is also incorrect to imply that Palme d’Or winners fare poorly in the U.S. While acknowledging one exception (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” 2004), what about all of the other successes to come out of Cannes: “The Pianist,” 2002; “Dancer in the Dark,” 2000; “Secrets & Lies,” 1996; “Pulp Fiction,” 1994; “The Piano,” 1993; “Barton Fink,” 1991; “Wild at Heart,” 1990; “sex, lies and videotape,” 1989; “Pelle the Conquerer,” 1988; “The Mission,” 1986 — and that’s just in the last couple decades. In fact, going down the list, there are as many hits as failures: other winners include successes such as Missing, All that Jazz, Taxi Driver, M.A.S.H., Blowup, A Man and a Woman, La Dolce Vita, and so on.
And if not every single one of these Palme-winners broke box office records, their shelf-life on DVD is enormous — an absolutely essential piece of the numbers that the Times story completely writes out of the equation. Now I don’t mean to say that these films have done well because they won at Cannes. But it just so happens that Cannes winners generally belong to a club of films that endure beyond such facile analyses..