Cannes and controversy are as inseparable as Siamese twins. In its early years, the film festival, which is now fast approaching its 75th anniversary (May 17-28), was a disgrace and a scandal on the beach. Once an American starlet dropped her top and rushed to a leading Hollywood hero who had to quickly save her modesty with the palms of his hands! And all for photo op moments when she was hoping to catch the attention of a producer or director. With young women stripping down to their knickers and inviting lens men to capture their naked glory, and others playing, yes playing, basketball on the beach in their topless allure, there was never an unexciting moment on the French Riviera .
Somewhere, the festival that’s often – and rightly – dubbed the queen of them all got tired of this topless superiority and shifted its focus to films, also sparking major controversy. One run through some of them, and they came with globs of risqué sex and heartbreaking violence.
One of the earliest titles to raise eyebrows was Italian master Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which hit the Croisette (on the beach at Cannes) bundled with questions in 1960. The film’s immoral pleasures had already angered the then impossibly conservative Vatican. Even the opening shot of La Dolce Vita, with a helicopter transporting Christ the Redeemer over Rome, enraged the church. But the film became a hot topic of discussion at Cannes, and Cannes, which is Cannes, sent away the film with its top award, the Palm d’Or.
Another film that won the Palme d’Or despite its brute force was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which featured a wounded Vietnamese soldier (Robert De Niro) covered in blood. This year’s president of the jury, Tennessee Williams, was openly critical. “Seeing violence on screen is a brutal experience for the viewer,” he told the press. “Movies should not take voluptuous pleasure in dwelling on horrible atrocities, as if one were in a Roman circus.” Nevertheless, the jury could not resist the artistic peak of the film and gave it the highest award.
No one would have guessed that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction would win the Palme d’Or in 1994 with his blood and gore. Even the director said he doesn’t make films that bring people together. “I make the kind of films that tear people apart.” The crime epic sparked heated debates. And just about everyone had imagined, and even hoped, that Krzysztof Kieślowski’s romantic crime thriller Three Colors: Red would win the statue for its sweet traditional cinematic appeal. But no. That wasn’t the case, as the trophy went to Tarantino.
In 1996, David Cronenberg’s Crash, a cocktail of sex and violence that turned men and women on with its horrifying car crashes, was booed and jeered at, and the media pounded the film to a pulp. The Evening Standard wrote: “Some of the most perverted plots and theories of sexual deviancy … ever promoted in mainline cinema have been seen”. The jury president, Francis Ford Coppola, was dead against Crash. Although Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies received the palm, the judges prevailed to honor Cronenberg with a special judge’s award.
The 2001 festival witnessed a horrific scene when the young actors playing People in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour armed themselves with dead pigeons and began attacking each other in an art imitating fall. But when the birds landed on diners at the posh Majestic restaurant, security guards had to step in – even as the director watched the whole “show” with malicious exuberance.
The following year, Gaspar Noe’s wild Irreversible had a nine-minute raw rape scene in which a man sought revenge on the guy who misbehaved towards his girlfriend. About 200 people in the audience walked out in disgust, and about 20 of them needed medical attention when they passed out! “In 25 years of my job I’ve never seen that at the Cannes Film Festival,” a fire department spokesman told the BBC. “The scenes were unbearable even for us professionals.” Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci starred.
Cannes scored a hat-trick; In 2003, it featured Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. His co-star Chloe Sevigny performed non-simulated oral sex on him. The work was panned and condemned by critics and viewers.
We all know the kind of controversy Danish director Lars von Trier can stir up. In 2011, while presenting Melancholia at Cannes, he told a crowded media conference that he admired Hitler. The festival was on fire and was forced to ask him to leave town. Even his 2009 Antichrist was panned for its misogyny. However, its actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg, won Best Actress.
As recently as 2019, Mektoub My Love, Intermezzo by Abdellatif Kechiche had lengthy sex scenes that were not simulated. The film features a scene where actress Ophelie Bau gets oral sex and is brought to orgasm.
As the saying goes, there’s never a dull moment in Cannes, and let’s see what’s on offer this time.