Why does Cannes, whose astute audiences are primed to welcome the most minimalist of dirges and the artiest of art films, stir more jeers, boos and walkouts than any other festival?
From Antonioni to Lynch, and for many reasons related to time and place, here are 10 memorably hated Cannes premieres that went on to achieve canon or cult status, or even won the Palme d’Or.
1. 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 Cahiers 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.
2. 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.” 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.
3. 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. Even jury head Tennessee Williams was appalled: “Watching violence on the screen is a brutalizing experience for the spectator… Films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and in lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus.”
4. David Lynch loves a Cannes scandal. 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 rebel whose snakeskin jacket symbolizes his belief in personal freedom.
5. Two years later, and more understandably so, Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” repelled audiences at Cannes. Owen Gleiberman said it was like “Nightmare on Elm Street” directed by Antonioni (sounds good to me). 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 ABC. “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.
6. David Cronenberg’s “Crash” lost the Palme d’Or but picked up the Special Jury Prize “for audacity” in 1996. This shocking, cool, nihilistic neo-noir 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. One character uses another one’s flesh wound as a sexual orifice.
7. The pièce de résistance of Cannes bombs was “The Brown Bunny,” Vincent Gallo’s loathed 2003 art-with-a-capital-A film that really does feel like watching paint set, however beautiful. Roger Ebert said it was the worst film in Cannes history; Gallo called him “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.” Gallo recut the film for Toronto and eventually got the “thumbs up” from Ebert, who said “One day I will be thin but he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.'” Gallo plays a cross-country motorcyclist who quite literally goes in circles and then gets a blow job from Chloe Sevigny.
8. Everybody hated “Southland Tales” when it premiered in the competition unfinished. Richard Kelly’s 2005 followup to “Donnie Darko” meandered plotlessly for three hours through a near-future LA filled with airheads played by Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore and Justin Timberlake. Roger Ebert said “I was dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me, at the most disastrous Cannes press screening since, yes, ‘The Brown Bunny.'” Salon noted “at least 10 percent of the press-screening audience walked out.” J. Hoberman obviously loved it. And looking back, it’s a pretty cool cult oddity with big ideas about the escalation of decay in America.
9. 2012 brought a double bill of boos to the Croisette. During Carlos Reygadas’ odd and ambitious “Post Tenebras Lux” somebody stood up and shouted “Viva Bunuel!” from the ramparts in response to its surrealism and situations far away from real human behavior (including an uncomfortable, unsexy scene in a bathhouse). Later, Lee Daniels’ swampy, sweaty “The Paperboy” elicited many a chair-slapping walkout when Nicole Kidman took a piss on Zac Efron’s dewy beach body.
10. Last year, first-time director Ryan Gosling joined the ranks of the Cannes maudits when his “Lost River” played Un Certain Regard. Critics said it was a “crapocalypse” and “ruin porn,” a term to be eliminated from the vocabulary. Gosling now assures that the notorious Cannes premiere “is part of the film’s history” — but given the film’s terrible reviews it’s a smudge he can’t quite wipe off. If Gosling weren’t the director, we’d all be praising a promising discovery.
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.