A story of sex and violence
Cannes and controversy are as inseparable as Siamese twins. In its early years, the Film Festival which is now racing towards its 75th anniversary (May 17-28), was shame and scandal on the beach. Once an American starlet dropped her top and rushed at a top Hollywood hero who had to quickly save her modesty with her palms! And all for photo-op moments where she hoped to catch the eye of a producer or director. With young women stripping down to their panties and inviting photographers to capture their nude glory and others playing, yes playing, basketball on the beach in their topless allure, there has never been a moment without interest on the Côte d’Azur.
Well, somewhere the Festival, often – and rightly – called the queen of them all, got tired of this topless and turned to movies, which also created huge controversies. A run through some of them, and they came up with dollops of daring sex and heartbreaking violence.
One of the first titles that raised eyebrows was La Dolce Vita by Italian master Federico Fellini, who came to the Croisette (Cannes waterfront) in 1960 with questions. The movie’s immoral pleasures had already irked the Vatican, which at that time was incredibly conservative. Even La Dolce Vita’s foreground of a helicopter carrying the statue of Christ over Rome infuriated the church. But the film became a hot topic of debate at Cannes, and Cannes being Cannes returned the film with the highest honor, the Palme d’Or.
Another film that, despite its raw violence, won the Palme d’Or was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which showed a wounded Vietnamese soldier (Robert De Niro) covered in blood. That year’s jury president, Tennessee Williams, was openly critical. “Watching violence on screen is a brutal experience for the viewer,” he told reporters. “Films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in dwelling on terrible cruelties as if one were in a Roman circus.” However, the jury could not ignore the high artistic level of the film and awarded it the highest distinction.
Nobody imagined that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994 with its blood and gore would win the Palme d’Or. Even the director said he doesn’t make the kind of movies that bring people together. “I make the kind of films that divide people.” The crime epic has been the subject of heated discussions. And just about everyone had imagined and even hoped that Krzysztof Kieślowski’s romantic mystery Three Colours: Red would land the statue, due to its sweet traditional cinematic appeal. But no. This is not the case, the trophy going to Tarantino.
In 1996, David Cronenberg’s Crash, which was a cocktail of sex and violence that turned men and women on with its horrific car crashes, was booed and jeered at, and the media reduced the film to a pulp. The Evening Standard wrote: “Some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance…ever seen propagated in mainstream cinema have been seen”. Jury foreman Francis Ford Coppola was dead against Crash. Although Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies took the top prize, panel members prevailed to honor Cronenberg with a Special Jury Prize.
The 2001 Festival witnessed a terrible scene when the young actors playing in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour People armed themselves with dead pigeons and began attacking each other in an art-mimicking life case. But when the birds landed on diners at the sumptuous Majestic restaurant, security guards had to intervene – even as the manager watched the whole “show” with gleeful exuberance.
The following year, Gaspar Noe’s savage Irréversible had a raw nine-minute rape scene in what was a man’s search for revenge on the guy who misbehaved with his girlfriend. Around 200 people in the audience walked out in disgust and around 20 of them needed medical assistance when they passed out! “In 25 years in the business, I’ve never seen this at the Cannes Film Festival,” a spokesman for the fire department told the BBC. “The scenes were unbearable, even for us professionals.” It starred Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci.
Cannes scored a hat-trick; in 2003, he presented The Brown Bunny by Vincent Gallo. Her co-star Chloe Sevigny gave her an unsimulated blowjob. The work was criticized and cursed by critics and viewers.
We all know the kind of controversy Danish director Lars Von Trier can create. In 2011, at Cannes to present Melancholia, he told a crowded press conference that he admired Hitler. The Festival found itself on fire and was forced to ask him to leave town. Even his 2009 Antichrist was rejected because of his misogyny. However, his actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg, was voted best actress.
As recently as 2019, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub My Love, Intermezzo had long, unsimulated sex scenes. The film features a scene in which actress Ophélie Bau receives oral sex and is brought to orgasm.
As they say, Cannes is never boring, and let’s see what’s on offer this time around.
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