The Cannes Film Festival has built a reputation over seven decades as one unafraid of controversy. The boos, heckles, and jeers from the audience have become a Cannes tradition whenever a film is deemed unworthy of the festival’s lofty standards. This year has already seen Gus Van Sant’s “Sea Of Trees” eviscerated by critics (including us). While there are different shades to every controversy, each genuinely controversial Cannes title has earned the right to referred as such. For example. calling Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive” “controversial”’ would be unduly praising an otherwise utterly forgettable movie.
Whether we’re talking about great or not-so-great works of cinema that caused a scandal because of their envelope-pushing nature, or hotly anticipated films from big name directors that confounded critics to the point of dominating conversation throughout the entire festival, controversial Cannes titles are fascinating. So here are ten of the festival’s most controversial films ever. Those expecting a paragraph on Lars Von Trier calling himself a Nazi in 2011 or the unfortunate feud between Abdellatif Kechiche and his “Blue Is The Warmest Color” actresses should note that this feature keeps its focus on films per se, and whatever controversy each riled up according to how they were initially acknowledged.
In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see why “Viridiana” stands out as a sublime highlight in Luis Buñuel‘s illustrious filmography. The film plays out like a fiercely comical coming-of-age tale told by an absurd humanitarian, one who’s not afraid to satirize the Catholic belief system and inspect the beneficial outcomes of charity with a raised eyebrow. Over the years, the film has grown infamous for a number of reasons, and two scenes in particular —Viridiana’s (Silvia Pinal) paupers running amok in the house and striking the “Last Supper” pose for a photo, and the scorching sexual innuendo in the closing moments between Viridiana, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) and Ramona (Margarita Lozano)— are today considered to be prime examples of Buñuel’s genius. But when the film premiered at Cannes in 1961, two powerful parties were substantially less enthused by Buñuel’s provocative pokes at religion and class values. In a rare case of a Cannes film inciting controversy due to its positive reception (as opposed to vitriolic derision, in the case of most other titles coming up on this list), General Franco’s Spain tried to withdraw “Viridiana” from competition. Failing in this (the film ended up sharing the Palme d’Or with Henri Colpi‘s “The Long Absence“), “Viridiana” was banned in Bunuel’s home country and was only released there after Franco’s death in 1977. The Vatican’s official newspaper called the film “blasphemous,” which prompted the staunch atheist Buñuel to famously quip, “I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am.” Bless him.
“Do The Right Thing” (1989)
Spike Lee has never shied from controversy, even if some of his more recent remarks border on self-parody. The somewhat unsavory public perception of Lee began after “Do The Right Thing” screened to a stunned Cannes audience in 1989. Taking place over the course of the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, the film centers around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, owned and operated by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) with his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) helping out. Lee infamously portrays Mookie, the Pizzeria’s delivery boy who brings the news from the neighborhood after his rounds. Roger Ebert wrote that “Do The Right Thing” “comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time,” but some critics (namely, former New York Magazine critic David Denby, former New York Magazine political columnist Joe Klein and former Newsweek critic Jack Kroll) feared that the film would incite riots from black audiences, causing Lee to single out their reviews and articles as “pure, uncut, unfiltered racism.” At the festival itself, Jury President Wim Wenders said that he didn’t award the film the Palme d’Or because he thought Lee’s character Mookie was unheroic, to which the director retorted: “I’ve got a Louisville Slugger at home with Wim Wenders’ name on it.” Instead, the award went to a somewhat puzzled 27-year-old Steven Soderbergh and his breakout film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Soderbergh was reportedly worried about Lee’s reaction, seeing as how he too thought ‘Do The Right Thing’ would (and should have) won. None of this takes away from the film’s monumental power and undeniable cultural significance.
“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992)
When David Lynch came to Cannes in 1992 after his and Mark Frost‘s wonderfully cryptic TV show “Twin Peaks” finished its run on ABC, he unveiled ‘Fire Walk With Me;’ the hotly anticipated hybrid prequel/spinoff that focuses on Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) life one week before her murder (which is the entire premise for the TV show). Time has been much kinder to “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” —it’s largely considered to be a vital component in Lynch’s canon, but back when it screened at Cannes, first impressions were mired in vitriol and disappointment. It’s an especially noteworthy and controversial reaction because the heckling didn’t only occur when it finished, but throughout the entire course of the movie. Among the displeased audience members who walked out were Quentin Tarantino, who would later go on to explain (in a prescient moment of the pot calling the kettle black) how “David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman likened it to a “Nightmare on Elm’s Street” episode as directed by Antonioni (not really meant as a compliment, though some could take it as such), and in a piece he wrote for a German magazine later that year, Lynch began with: “At the Cannes Film Festival, I’ve always been asked the same question: Why did you make ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?'” Since its initial premiere, the film has gained much critical respect, ensuring that the black sheep on the Lynch farm is still very much “Dune,” but it remains as one of the most derided Cannes premieres of the ’90s.
For a story that focuses on those peculiar souls known to fetishize car accidents, it would’ve been much stranger had David Cronenberg‘s “Crash” not sparked immediate controversy following its premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. Based on J.G. Ballard‘s equally-scandalous 1973 novel, the story centers on commercial film producer Jeffrey Ballard (James Spader), a husband who loves his promiscuity as much as his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) does, and who literally crashes into Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) one night. Ballard and Remington subsequently descend into a depraved and perverted affair, as they bond over a shared fetish for car wrecks under the tutelage of the mysterious and scarred cult-like leader Vaughan (Elias Koteas). With a premise like that, “Crash” is the kind of film that unambiguously courts controversy. When it premiered on the festival’s last Friday night, the film left exhausted audience members fundamentally befuddled at what they’ve just seen. Variety’s Todd McCarthy called it a “forbiddingly frigid piece of esoteric erotica,” while LA Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote that it’s “so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway‘ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” And Turan’s review came a year after the film’s Cannes premiere, a year which saw the kind of censorship and ratings issues one can expect for a film as relentlessly perverse and emotionally detached as Cronenberg’s “Crash.” Today the film holds a rotten 58% critical consensus, and is generally considered lesser Cronenberg (especially when compared to the director’s more lauded body-horror films like “Naked Lunch” and “Videodrome“), but many (among them Martin Scorsese) have come out in the film’s defense, admiring the way it presents people’s unhealthy obsession with technology.
The surest way to stir up some controversy? Call your film “Fuck Me” and premiere it at Cannes. This is the English translation of Virginie Despentes‘ and Coralie Trinh Thi‘s 2000 provocative French film, which centers around two women who rebel against their misogynist surroundings in graphically violent, cringe-worthy ways. When it premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regarde sidebar, the explicitness of the film’s violence (a scene features the two women murdering an entire swingers’ club, and anally penetrating one of the patrons with a gun before killing him, so… yeah) and its anarchic narrative brimming with drug addicts, prostitutes, rapists and two decidedly anti-heroic protagonists successfully disgusted most audience members, especially the French press who seemed collectively ashamed that a film like this was a product of their country. After a short-lived theatrical release, the French authorities officially banned it, making it the first film in 28 years to get such an extreme reaction. Controversy was shaped by outside factors as well, chiefly due to Coralie Trinh Thi’s real-life experience as a porn actress and the use of porn actors in the film (including the two actresses who play the central roles, Karen Lancaume and Raffaëla Anderson). As such, many misappropriated the film’s genre as pornography, but anyone who’s seen it knows that to be a silly assessment. The film itself is a poorly-shot example of the kind of exploitation meant to incite anger for its own sake, but thanks to the resulting controversy, it’s become a notorious example of the “French New Extremity” wave of the early 2000s, and one of the most studied cases of contemporary cinema censorship, especially when examined through a feminist microscope.
“If outraged viewers (mostly women) at the Cannes Film Festival are any indication, this will be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003,” wrote Newsweek’s David Ansen of “Irréversible,” Gaspar Noé‘s sophomore feature film. It competed for the Palme in 2002 and prompted Roger Ebert (who nonetheless admired its reverse-chronological structure) to call it “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” Those who’ve seen it know all too well why this movie incited such rancorous reactions from the Croisette. It’s the story of Alex (Monica Bellucci) and her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel), told around the ill-fated night when Alex is attacked and raped in an underground tunnel and Marcus’ uncontrollable compulsion to get revenge on her attacker. It’s the kind of subject that can make you cringe, but with Noé’s dogged determination to burst through boundaries and confront audiences with the pain of such human suffering as closely as possible, “Irréversible” becomes much more powerful. Noé uses cinematic techniques to push the envelope and infuse his film with an unapologetically nihilistic vibe; the restless camera finally settles down at the most painful moment in the film. That stationary, uncut, take of Alex’s rape is very possibly the most uncomfortable and inflammatory scenes in contemporary cinema, one which Bellucci and Noé had to defend in interview after interview. For better or worse, the controversy of having a film like this officially selected to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or fed Noé’s notoriety as an artistic provocateur, a reputation that today builds a potent mix of anticipation and anxiousness for the director’s upcoming projects. This year’s “Love,” screening in Cannes’ Midnight selection, is no exception.
“The Brown Bunny” (2003)
One year after Noé successfully outraged a large portion of Cannes audiences, actor-turned-director Vincent Gallo came to the French Riviera with a little indie flick called “The Brown Bunny” as if to say “Irrevers-err, what? Wait ’til you see this.” Premiering at Cannes in its full 118 minute form, “The Brown Bunny” tells the melancholic story of motorbike racer Bud (Gallo) and his inability to connect with other people due to the haunting memories of his ex-girlfriend Daisy (Chloe Sevigny). Upon its very first screening, the film became instantly controversial because of one specific scene towards the end of the film, when Sevigny performs unsimulated fellatio on Gallo and swallows his semen. Sevigny’s agency Williams Morris dropped her even before the film screened, concerned that she tainted her entire career by agreeing to perform acts that were not that far removed from pornogaphy, while Sevigny defended herself and the film in the name of art (and Andy Warhol). More famously, the film spurred a beef between Gallo and Roger Ebert, after the critic proclaimed “The Brown Bunny” to be “the worst film in the history of the festival.” The war of words got personal, as the two traded insults over the course of the next few months, and included Gallo calling Ebert a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader,” and Ebert responding with, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.’ ” It was all settled when Gallo entered a new cut of the film at the Toronto Film Festival (26 minutes shorter, but blowjob scene intact), which Ebert respected much more. While it’s not very good, the film will forever be remembered for that scene, but thankfully it never ended up actually ruining Sevigny’s career.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)
One of the promotional posters for Michael Moore‘s anti-Bush administration documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” sees the director holding hands with the photoshopped President on the lawn of the White House, the cheeky tag-line reading “Controversy…What Controversy?” in unmissable print. So, here we are. The documentary is very much a product of its time, riding on the coattails of the ever-growing unpopularity of President George W. Bush‘s “War on Terror” in Iraq and his hunt for Osama Bin Laden. “Fahrenheit 9/11” sees Moore mercilessly confronting the Bush presidency; spending considerable time examining the disputed vote count in Florida in 2000 and Bush’s immediate response to the 9/11 attacks, and essentially building a case to support a theory that —if proven factual— would have been clear grounds for impeachment. The facts in the documentary caused its own hurricane of controversy after Cannes rolled back the carpet, but it all started when Jury President Quentin Tarantino (!) awarded the film the Palme d’Or, the first such awarded to a documentary feature since 1956, dividing the global film industry into supporters and attackers. And we’re talking about the same Cannes Festival that saw Park Chan Wook‘s “Oldboy” (Grand Prix winner) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Tropical Malady” (Jury Prize winner). The film reportedly received a 15-20 minute standing ovation, and went on to bulldoze the competition in that year’s Oscar season, but many attacked Tarantino’s decision to reward the film with the festival’s highest honor, including Cannes director Gilles Jacob, who believed that in the case of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “it was a question of a satirical tract that was awarded a prize more for political than cinematographic reasons, no matter what the jury said.” Tarantino defends his jury’s decision to this day, but the film will likely remain as the festival’s most controversial Palme d’Or winner.
We all know that Danish director Lars von Trier is a walking-talking controversy generator by now, a reputation cemented when the Cannes Film Festival had its fill of Von Trier’s inflammatory antics and branded the director a “persona non-grata” after his Nazi remarks during the “Melancholia” press conference in 2011. Leaving aside the director’s antics, there’s no avoiding him in an article about controversial Cannes titles. Two years before his banishment, the director caused an outpouring of outrage, innumerable walk-outs, and more than a couple of fainting episodes when his “Antichrist” screened In Competition at the 2009 festival. It’s the depressing story (the first in the director’s “Depression” trilogy) of a man (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) coping with the death of their infant son by spending some time in a remote cabin. It’s the wife who seemingly can’t handle the grief, resulting in her gradually losing her mind and inflicting unimaginable pain on her husband and herself. Joining a few other movies on the list, “Antichrist” contains very specific scenes that cross certain moral, ethical and ideological boundaries (genital self-mutilation, bloody ejaculation, that sort of thing), whirling Cannes audiences into a frenzy and prompting the festival’s ecumenical jury to give the film an “anti-award,” calling it “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” Gainsbourg deservedly picked up the Best Actress award for her soaring and deeply-felt portrayal, but the controversy stirred up by the film itself became the most significant talking point of the festival, even overshadowing Michael Haneke‘s first Palme D’Or (“The White Ribbon“), and other hotly anticipated competition films that year, including Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” and Noé’s “Enter The Void.”
“Only God Forgives” (2013)
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s gorgeously shot, over-stylized, hyperviolent and drastically antiformal movie, “Only God Forgives” certainly qualifies as one of the most divisive films to screen at the festival in recent memory. The anticipation surrounding the film’s premiere reached fever pitch levels, largely thanks to Refn’s success at the festival two years prior, when he won the Best Director award and a ton of praise for his neon-thriller “Drive.” Refn returned to the Croisette two years later, having re-teamed with his A-list “Drive” star Ryan Gosling and sailing on a marketing campaign that highlighted his new film’s resplendent aesthetic and photogenic Bangkok location. But all expectations were stunned into one collective WTF when the film screened, inciting copious amounts of debate over Refn’s directorial abilities and Gosling’s acting choices. While some booed and walked out, others stood up and applauded; The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw praised it with a perfect five out of five stars, Variety’s Peter Debruge called it a film “devoid of feeling, a venality even “Drive” fans likely won’t be inclined to forgive,” Grantland’s Wesley Morris dismissed it as “regressive junk,” while our own Jessica Kiang found herself somewhere in middle: “On paper, “Only God Forgives” is exactly the movie we might have wanted —a re-visitation to the dark, fetishistically violent world of “Drive,” with added local color and occasional, acid dialogue. Onscreen it’s that too: just that and no more.” Though it has its supporters, as more and more people confess that the film has been largely misunderstood, “Only God Forgives” remains at the tip of most everyone’s tongue when it comes to recent controversial titles to screen at Cannes. Refn probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
Through the festival’s seven decade-long history, there have been many titles that caused some kind of controversy. Some caused dissent purely based on how god-awful they are, including Lee Daniels’ abysmal “The Paperboy,” Richard Kelly’s over-bloated mess “Southland Tales” and last year’s wretched festival opener Olivier Dahan’s “Grace Of Monaco.” Others were appreciated by critics and Jury members, but taken with a healthy dose of salt considering each film’s challenging nature, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece “Taxi Driver” and Abel Ferrara’s sleazy character study “Bad Lieutenant,” among them. Others raised plenty of dust back on home soil after their Cannes premiere, similar to “Viridiana,” includes Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Jiang Wen’s “Devils on the Doorstep.”
Any major controversial Cannes movies we’ve missed? Do you think “Sea of Trees,” or something else from this year’s festival will have the honor of appearing in an article like this one day? You know where to go.