Why is it that a festival as reputable as Cannes, teeming with astute moviegoers whose tastes are perennially primed to welcome the most minimalist of dirges and the artiest of art films, stirs so many jeers, boos and walkouts year after year?
Last year, it was Carlos Reygadas’ luminous and odd “Post Tenebras Lux” that caused one audience member to shout “Viva Bunuel!” from the ramparts. In another 2012 screening on the Croisette, Lee Daniels’ swampy pulp piece “The Paperboy” elicited many a chair-slapping walkout when Nicole Kidman took a piss on Zac Efron’s dewy beach body.
Beginning May 8 at BAMcinematek in New York, such decried films will get a second chance in a new environment where cinephiles are expected to bring no long-harbored grudges. “Booed at Cannes” showcases 15 films from some of cinema’s most beloved auteurs — Fellini, Bresson, Antonioni, Scorsese, Lynch and Weerasethakul, to name a few. For many reasons related to time and place, these films were reviled upon premiering at Cannes but have since gone on to achieve canon status, and many of them even won the Palme d’Or and other prizes.
The series kicks off with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud” (1964), a psychological mood piece about a wealthy, bored aristocratic woman who takes up an affair with a young musician. Deemed a stuffy study of sofas and pianos — and an essay in how long a director can stretch a take — the film was loathed at Cannes. But it was second to Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” on Cahier du Cinema’s top 10 of 1964, and is now regarded as one of Dreyer’s late-career greats. Nina Pens Rode gives a remarkably restrained performance as the title character, a caged bird in Danish high society.
Austere Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was no stranger to mockery on the Croisette. Though his “L’Avventura” received a prize at the festival in 1960, many viewers were bored to tears by his torpid style and apathetic characters. Much of the same can be seen in his 1962 “L’Eclisse,” screening in the BAMcinematek program.
With its languorous pacing and long takes of Monica Vitti indifferently ambling through an industrially ravaged Italy — when is she not doing this in an Antonioni film? — “L’Eclisse” was also greeted with jeers at Cannes despite winning the Special Jury Prize. “L’eclisse” is among Antonioni’s most challenging films, though Vitti and co-star Alain Delon is sure easy on the eyes. The film’s modernist ending continues to stump viewers, showing a world where human connection is futile, where the lovers (played by Vitti and Delon) do not meet for their appointed date by a water fountain, where the world simply goes on with or without us.
Also on the docket at BAM is a David Lynch double bill, a director continually met by scandal at Cannes. His gleefully evil southern gothic “Wild at Heart” scored the Palme d’Or in 1990–and plenty of boos. Of all Lynch’s so-called “difficult” films — alongside “Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire,” the ones that really take you deep into Lynch country — “Wild at Heart” offers the most tangible narrative in its twisted tale of lovers on the run. Audiences hated the film’s graphic violence and lurid citations of “The Wizard of Oz.” As with “Blue Velvet” before it, “Heart” offers an off-putting concoction of irony and melodrama, set to a slow boil. Nicholas Cage gives his perhaps his best performance as the guy whose snakeskin jacket symbolizes his belief in personal freedom.
Two years later, and more understandably so, Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” repelled audiences at Cannes. As a prequel to the cult TV series, “Fire Walk with Me” took the oddball, quietly malignant show to disturbing depths, grounding the dark fate of murdered high schooler Laura Palmer in a plot of rape, incest and drug addiction. These were the things viewers otherwise preferred to be kept off the small screen when “Twin Peaks” aired on CBS. “Fire Walk with Me” is one of Lynch’s most confounding films. Like his other works, the first third is almost a separate film from the rest, one that seeks to prime you for a different and entirely warped experience.
I was surprised to learn that films by two much-loved French directors were hated upon their initial Cannes premieres. Robert Bresson’s 1983 “L’Argent,” which won him the best director prize, is one of the “Au Hasard Balthazar” director’s best color features. Here he continues to explore the lives of listless youth living in Paris, putting the nail on the coffin — at least for me — of dreams of being an outlaw in France. Francois Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin,” regarded by J. Hoberman as one of the Nouvelle Vague director’s best, also made its way into the BAM program.
David Cronenberg’s “Crash” lost the Palme d’Or but picked up the Special Jury Prize “for audacity” in 1996. This shocking, cool, nihilistic little number has been banned all over the world. A far-cry from Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning “Crash,” Cronenberg’s NC-17 film, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s novel, is a deeply unsexy look at (poly)sexual fetishists who get off on car crashes. No need to wonder why Cannes audiences hated this movie. Maybe it’s because Ballard (James Spader) uses another character’s flesh wound as a sexual orifice.
“Booed at Cannes” is not without its shortage of women-on-the-edge films. Tony Richardson’s “Mademoiselle” features a fearless performance by Jeanne Moreau as a sadomasochistic schoolteacher, while Jean Eustache’s rare “The Mother and the Whore” — which I haven’t seen but have been meaning to since Anna Paquin’s character said it “looks like a cool movie” in “The Squid and the Whale” — depicts a typically French love triangle.
Other works in the series include Fellini’s last film “The Voice of the Moon,” Bunuel’s “El” and the brilliantly bizarre “Tropical Malady” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Last but not least, it’s hard to believe how much outrage was generated at the time by Martin Scorsese’s urban nightmare “Taxi Driver,” which won the Palme d’Or in 1976 after eliciting verbal protests due to explicit violence and the casting of the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster as a dolled-up prostitute.
Read more about the full program here.