When Thierry Frémaux unveiled this year’s lineup, the Cannes Film Festival chief made the surprise admission that one of his selections—Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here—was missing a few scenes at the time of programming. The amount of work needed was minimal, but submitting unfinished work can be a poisoned chalice. In fact, for all the glitz and pomp of a Cannes berth, there are many caveats awaiting the unwary filmmaker. Some entries, like Bennett Miller’s 2014 Best Picture nominee Foxcatcher, cruise all the way to awards season, while others fall hard—like Gus Van Sant’s critically panned Sea Of Trees (2015), which looked hot on paper with a cast including Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts but sputtered out with a fall VOD release.
Talent just isn’t enough. Take, for example, Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, who took so long tinkering with his hotly anticipated sci-fi 2046 that it arrived at the 2004 event too late for its press and first public screening, and began its evening world premiere with the last reel still in transit. The drama brought lots of attention, but that’s all. Perhaps hurt by grumblings of a publicity stunt, the film went home unrewarded, and though Wong went back to the film, changing it substantially from the festival cut and adding six minutes, 2046 never really regained momentum.
Still, other directors have had it worse. After pressure from his Japanese backers in 2003, Vincent Gallo later said he only entered a rough cut of The Brown Bunny in the hope it would be rejected, allowing him time to blow the film up to 35mm from Super-16 using rare vintage equipment. Instead it was accepted, and while the starting gun inspired Gallo to find his ending, the middle was flabby. It premiered at a messy 119 minutes, prompting critic Roger Ebert to label it “the worst film in the history of the festival.” The quote spread like wildfire; but not so widely reported was Ebert’s three-star re-evaluation of the recut film on its release in 2004. “Make no mistake,” he wrote. “The Cannes version was a bad film, but now Gallo’s editing has set free the good film inside.”
It was too late; few have seen The Brown Bunny redux, a fate that also befell Richard Kelly’s ambitious 2006 apocalyptic comedy Southland Tales. Just 29 when he started shooting, Kelly couldn’t resist the festival’s invitation, even knowing that the visual effects were far from finished. Reviewers called it a “fiasco” and “shambolic,” while Ebert (again) was “dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me.” After the film was picked up by Sony, Kelly cut 20 minutes and delivered a vastly superior, if still somewhat anarchic release version, but this time Ebert did not relent—it was “even more of a mess,” he decreed—and audiences stayed away. Worldwide, it took less that $400,000, and Kelly learned a harsh lesson about film-industry loyalty. “Everyone’s your best friend when you get into competition at Cannes,” he later noted. “But then the movie is widely ridiculed, and all of a sudden, your phone stops ringing.”
But there are plenty of other reasons why a Cannes premiere can backfire. It’s worth noting this year that two much-mooted Hollywood titles, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and War Machine, are absent. No doubt there are financial and logistical reasons for that, but the two stars, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt—both reeling from highly public relationship dramas—must have breathed a sigh of relief. Last year, after opening the festival with Café Society, Woody Allen’s Cannes reverie was rudely shattered when his estranged son Dylan Farrow penned an angry column re-igniting allegations of abuse made by his sister Dylan. Though the film was kindly reviewed, it quickly dropped from the awards conversation.
Similarly, when Jodie Foster attempted to bring back Mel Gibson from his self-imposed exile with 2011’s dramedy The Beaver, reports of his bitter custody battle the previous year were still fresh. Though he wisely ducked it, Gibson was the hot topic of the press conference, leaving Foster to defend him to the media. Europe was more receptive, but The Beaver tanked in the U.S., making less than $1 million.
Though his reception, in some quarters, was frosty, Gibson was never actually persona non grata. That ignominy was bestowed—literally, by the festival itself—on Denmark’s Lars von Trier after the car-crash press conference to promote his 2011 competition entry Melancholia. Quite forgetting that the world’s media were mostly there to see his star, Kirsten Dunst, von Trier made his usual darkly humorous remarks about the film’s Wagnerian flourishes: his jokey reference to his discovery that his father’s family was German—not Jewish, as he thought—will go down in Cannes history. A fair percentage of press present knew otherwise, but many took him at face value when he declared, “I’m a Nazi.” The post-premiere party was canceled by the venue’s Jewish owners; several distributors pulled out of their deals; and six years later von Trier, ever the Cannes darling since The Element Of Crime in 1984, remains firmly out in the cold.
Much is made of the mindless booing that so often occurs in Cannes, but it is the critical jungle drums that actually kill a film. Von Trier had fallen victim to the global reach of instant opinion in the Internet age, which began creeping up on the festival in 2008 when Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness took the festival’s opening-night slot. The reviews were not kind, and the director was tipped off on his way up the red-carpeted steps of the Grand Theatre Lumière by a text from his son advising him not to read them until the morning. Blindness at least had a release, but in 2013 James Gray saw his film The Immigrant disappear in front of his very eyes—as a result of bad UK reviews, notably one from The Guardian, The Weinstein Company yanked it. “The film got shelved,” said Gray, “it was a tremendous sadness to me.”
In the age of Google, bad buzz at Cannes is hard to shrug off. And yet in a rare case of serendipity, it worked in the favor of one of Cannes’ more divisive selections: had Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) starred Luke Evans, as planned, the director would likely still be picking up the pieces of a film derided by critic Rex Reed as “plotless, creepy, meat-headed and boring.” Instead, bailed out by his Drive star Ryan Gosling, Refn benefited from the kind of publicity money couldn’t buy: all his distributors had pre-bought the film, so when Evans left to make The Hobbit, not only did they have a Cannes talking point on their books, they also had a bargain.
But sometimes the wind blows the right way. When DreamWorks’ 2001 animated movie Shrek, starring Mike Myers as an unhygienic fairytale giant, was selected—in the main competition, no less—there was a collective intake of breath. Prior to that, and excluding 1973’s cerebral Planète Sauvage, there hadn’t been an animated film in competition since 1953, when Disney brought Peter Pan. It was a bold move to put Shrek onscreen alongside works by David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Jacques Rivette and the Coen brothers, and producer Aron Warner admits that “as soon as Shrek jumped into the water and farted, I know I put my head in my hands.”
Now, though, animated movies appear regularly on the Croisette, another reminder that, as Frémaux once remarked, “Cannes is a laboratory”—and while there are likely to be bad smells and the odd explosion, it is still first and foremost a place for discovery.