In cinema as elsewhere, it is the winners who write history. In Cannes, the Palme d’Or honors each year the filmmakers who obtain it. Webbed doubles like Francis Ford Coppola (“Secret Conversation” in 1974 and “Apocalypse Now” in 1979), Michael Haneke (“White Ribbon” in 2004 and “Love” in 2009), or even more recently Ken Loach, the most selected from the history of the Festival (“Le vent se lève” in 2006 and “Me, Daniel Blake” in 2016) are on everyone’s lips. But these directors are more often the exception than the rule, and others, however acclaimed, have never received the famous award.
Some have deliberately marginalized themselves from the competition, like Claude Chabrol or Jean-Luc Godard, historical opponents of the Cannes Film Festival. It was not until 2018 that the filmmaker of “A bout de Souffle” received a meager consolation prize in the form of a “special” Palme d’Or for his film “Le Livre d’image”. Others remain unloved filmmakers from the Croisette but never forgotten by their audience. Here are six.
Despite the long history of the Festival, only Jane Campion, for “The Piano Lesson”, and Julia Ducournau, for “Titanium”, have so far won the Palme d’Or. However, talented directors, Cannes has been able to count. Among them, Agnès Varda, an icon who has inspired generations of female directors, was the victim of Festival politics during her lifetime.
In 2017, Agnès Varda won the Œil d’Or, the documentary prize, for “Visages, Villages” which she directed with JR on rural France. If the film is acclaimed, like all of her documentaries, her favorite genre, it is also heavy with meaning, especially since Agnès Varda is far from being unknown to works of fiction.
“La Pointe courte”, “Le Bonheur”, “Cléo de 5 à 7”, “One sings, the other does not”, each of her films sheds original and relevant light on the human and feminine condition. But none of them will be selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Not even “Sans Toit ni loi” which, in 1985, allowed the director to obtain a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The artist’s biggest commercial success, the film recounting the wanderings of a homeless woman, with a young Sandrine Bonnaire in the lead role, is one of the great masterpieces of French cinema.
So, with a delay, the Croisette multiplies the honors and tributes to Agnès Varda. Palme d’honneur in 2015, even though his films have never appeared in official competition, the Festival’s 2019 headliner… Who even renamed the Salle du Soixantième in his name for its 75e editing.
Forgotten director or missed Palme? “Mademoiselle” had aroused excitement on the Croisette in 2016, by telling the erotic story of the meeting of a servant and a rich Japanese woman. The lesbian psychological thriller in period costumes and sets was then considered too wise compared to other South Korean productions. “Old Boy”, in particular, had enabled him to obtain the Grand Prix of the Festival in 2004.
These disappointments did not prevent Park Chan-wook from being a juror of the Festival in 2017. In competition this year with “Decision to Leave”, a thriller that reconnects with sensuality, Park Chan-wook could finally join the very closed club. web-based directors… and become, after Bong Joon-ho, the second South Korean to win such an award.
Cherished child or terrible child, the Hong Kong director is however one of the emblematic figures of Cannes. Ambitious and inventive, since “Chungking Express”, he has enjoyed a distribution and international recognition that leads him directly into the wide open arms of the Cannes Film Festival. In 1997, his film “Happy Together”, about two expatriate lovers in Buenos Aires, won the Best Director Award.
In 2000, his new feature film “In the Mood for Love” was a new chance for the director to impose himself and obtain the coveted Palme… Again, in vain. Only the performance of Tony Leung allows him to win an interpretation award. “In the Mood for Love” has however won a number of Cesar awards as well as in the director’s native country. A bitter failure in Cannes? Not if one is interested in his posterity.
This great romantic film, which has now become a major stylistic reference in the world of the seventh art, has grown in step with Cannes. Restoration on the occasion of the film’s 20th anniversary as part of the Cannes Classic selection and screening the following year at the Cinéma de la plage… The Festival refuses it almost nothing. Elected second best film of the decade by the BBC behind “Mulholland Drive”, “In the Mood for Love” is the proof, if necessary, that the Palme does not make a great film.
Perhaps deemed too experimental, too arduous, or too obscure, Alain Resnais’ cinema has never found its home in Cannes. We know the reluctance of the Festival with regard to the current of the New Wave, of which Alain Resnais was an emblematic figure. A filmmaker of time, of death, he has always defended an auteur cinema, acclaimed by critics but often not well received by the public.
Claiming to be from the more politicized “Rive Gauche”, like Chris Marker (“La Jetée”) or Agnès Varda, these films are committed and critical of society, which may have provoked conflicts between the filmmaker and the organization of the Festival. In 1955, his documentary on the Shoah and the experience of the concentration camps, “Nuit et Brouillard”, was deemed undesirable on the Croisette and banned due to an intervention by the German Embassy. Two years later, “Hiroshima mon amour” which deals with the meeting between a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man as well as the atomic conflict, is presented in Cannes but deprived of official selection at the request of the United States for diplomatic reasons.
To these controversial works, the organization of the Festival could then have preferred its more popular, but no less innovative feature films. The César ceremony understood this well by rewarding his film “Providence” in 1978 or the excellent “We know the song” in 1998.
Five times in official competition, James Gray is more than a familiar face in the selection. One of the most talented American directors, his films explore an intimate history of struggle and existence. A love that the Festival returns to him with difficulty: the filmmaker has never obtained a single prize at Cannes.
Worse still, the experience is not always good for James Gray. When he presented “The Yards” in 2000, the public whistled. Despite a prestigious cast made up of Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron, the film suffered the filmmaker’s disputes with its producers, the Weinstein brothers, who went so far as to have the end changed. This terrible failure in Cannes earned the feature film bad press across the Atlantic, and hasty distribution. It will take years to be recognized by critics at its fair value.
Marked by his passage on the Croisette, James Gray took no less than seven years to shoot again for “The Night Belongs to Us” also presented at Cannes in 2007 and much better received. Followed by “Two Lovers” in 2008 and “The Immigrant” in 2013. But fate seems to be beating on James Gray who keeps leaving empty-handed. “Armageddon Time”, his last film in competition, may change the situation.
Today the most famous Spanish filmmaker in the world, Pedro Almodóvar, who was president of the Cannes Film Festival jury in 2017, has never won the precious Palme. However, these are not the opportunities that the director missed. Selected in official competition in 1999, “All About My Mother” won the Ecumenical Prize and the Director’s Prize. Faced with “Rosetta” by the Dardenne brothers, Pedro Almodóvar’s film on filiation and motherhood is no match for it. In 2006 “Volver”, a multigenerational film on incest and the price of lies which features his favorite actress Penelope Cruz only allows him to leave with the Screenplay Prize.
The Palm of Palms
In 1997, the Cannes Film Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. A special jury made up of the winners of the Palme d’Or is set up to award the Palme des Palmes to a filmmaker who has never won a prize. The award is given to Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director of “Cries and Whispers”. This one, no one can forget: she is unique.
Among the filmmakers never rewarded we also find Alfred Hitchcock, Satyajit Ray, François Truffaut, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Takeshi Kitano…
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Palme d’or: these forgotten directors of the Cannes Film Festival