While the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival is still a week away, today marks the start of a new series at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek that looks back at the history of the festival — particularly the notorious tendency of its audiences to boo certain films upon their premiere. “Booed at Cannes,” which runs May 8 – 12 and May 16 – 23, features 15 films that have received that treatment at the French festival over the course of its well-documented the occasion. To kick off the series, BAMcinématek assistant programmer David Reilly wrote the following overview for BAM’s publication BAMbill. The venue has kindly allowed us to reprint it here.
Since its inception in 1946, the Cannes Film Festival has gained a reputation as the film world’s most reliable hotbed for scandal: scenes clipped by censors moments before a film’s premiere, torrents of walkouts, and endless volleys of vicious repartee between the droves of moguls, critics, starlets, and dignitaries who descend upon the Palais des Festivals. Yet within the cavernous repository of Cannes controversy, there remains a place of honor for those films and directors eliciting that most visceral, ear-catching of hostile audience responses: the boo.
In recent years, booing at Cannes has become virtually de rigueur, the tabloids brimming with reports of Mel Gibson, Sofia Coppola, Brad Pitt, and Terrence Malick savaged by finicky Croisette crowds. But the practice has a long and colorful history, and BAMcinématek’s survey “Booed at Cannes” reveals a diverse array of films maudits and canonical classics subjected to a hearty hooting on the French Riviera.
We begin in 1960. As the new decade ushers in groundbreaking avenues of filmic expression, bewildered Cannes audiences start to voice their displeasure at “the shock of the new,” taking aim at Michelangelo Antonioni. His infamous “L’Avventura” (1960) premiere left leading lady Monica Vitti “crying like a baby” (in her words). Despite the emboldening support of a vocal contingent of critics and fellow filmmakers, the pair fared little better two years later when “L’Eclisse” (1962) met similar disdain.
On the flip side, the festival’s 1964 edition saw Nouvelle Vague pioneer François Truffaut’s already tumultuous relationship with the Cannes brass (he was banned from the festival in 1958, only to win Best Director the following year) reach a new nadir when “The Soft Skin” (1964) was wrongfully dismissed as a concession to commercial interests. Luis Buñuel experienced a similarly rocky trajectory: two years removed from winning Best Director for “Los Olvidados” (1950), his deliciously demented “El” (1952) was, per Georges Sadoul, “booed by 200 war veterans” voicing their support for the regrettable right-wing documentary “La vie passionée de Clémanceau” (1953). Buñuel would return as a jury member in 1954 (under President Jean Cocteau) and later nab the 1961 Palme d’Or for “Viridiana” (1961).
Audiences in 1965 witnessed Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer allegedly flipping off miscreants who booed his final film, “Gertrud” (1964), while 1966 was a banner year for chaotic spectacles. On top of jeering two still-misunderstood psychodramas—”Seconds: (1966), with Rock Hudson’s most terrifying, vulnerable performance, and :Mademoiselle” (1966), starring future Jury President Jeanne Moreau—the gallery had “nothing but boos” (Jet magazine) for England’s Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, who arrived 45 minutes late for the premiere of Joseph Losey’s “Modesty Blaise” (1966).
The 70s gave rise to a new brand of “enfant terribles and provocauteurs” (according to Cannes historians Kieron Corliss and Chris Darke), whose hostile receptions at Cannes were not entirely shocking and perhaps even courted by the directors. Jean Eustache’s debut feature “The Mother and the Whore” (1973) remains a taboo-busting bombshell, its frank treatment of sex prompting virulent protests culminating in a heated press conference-cum-inquisition where an exasperated Eustache called for his grandmother while declaring “[my film] is France.” Three years later, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) garnered boos as Jury President Tennessee Williams granted it top honors amid “the most unpopular list of awards given at the Cannes film festival for many years” (Reuters).
Thirty years after “La Dolce Vita” (1960) leapfrogged fellow countryman Antonioni en route to the coveted top prize, Federico Fellini would learn that having a Palme d’Or under one’s belt provides little protection from the restless masses, who howled at his luminous swan song “The Voice of the Moon” (1990). David Lynch voiced his indignation at witnessing Fellini’s dressing down, only to receive “the most violent chorus of boos and hisses to be heard in a decade” (Dave Kehr) days later when Anthony Quinn bestowed the d’Or on “Wild at Heart” (1990). In a déjà vu worthy of Lynch’s labyrinthine plotlines, his “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (1992) provoked an equally bellicose reaction two years later.
The “Wild at Heart” incident is a touchstone of that most spectacular category of Cannes controversies: the unruly televised awards ceremony, which allows the drama to unfold before a global audience. Viewers are still abuzz over the 1987 ceremony, where Maurice Pialat fought back against the cacophony of catcalls that greeted the d’Or announcement for his brooding theological parable “Under the Sun of Satan.” Pialat told the audience “if you don’t like me, I don’t like you” and flashed them the bras d’honneur (or “up yours” gesture) before departing the stage. But the Palais’ most shameful televised moment remains the 1983 ceremony, at which an 81-year-old Robert Bresson, the revered “patron saint of cinema,” took the stage—alongside Orson Welles and Andrei Tarkvosky, no less—to cascading boos as he received the Best Director award for “L’Argent” (1983). Despite living for 16 more years, Bresson would not direct another film.
And so, with its continued presence at festivals of late, one might ask: what’s in a boo? In these jaded filmgoing times there’s certainly much truth to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1998 declaration that “it is impossible at Cannes today to have the kinds of battles there were for ‘L’Avventura,'” but as the boos recently showered upon the likes of Cronenberg, Gallo, Von Trier, and even Apichatpong have proven, the right film can still hold the power to rankle the Riviera for years to come.