Why the standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival are so long


Four minutes for Flag day. Five minutes for A line. Nine minutes for The French dispatch.

The Cannes Film Festival, which ends today, has long had an unusual reputation for its long standing ovations. The tradition, which perhaps reached a climax when Pan’s Labyrinth received 22 minutes of applause in 2006 — occasionally drew mockery. While standing ovations are common responses to great art, a prolonged ceremony can get awkward – just watch the Once upon a time in hollywood the team grimaces for seven minutes of applause in 2019. Other times, they become performative: This year, Adam Driver lit a cigarette as the camera turned towards him for Annetteit’s five minutes of cheering.

The practice is not content to infuse the Croisette, the picturesque boulevard where Cannes takes place, with more pomp and glamor. Audiences can truly share their appreciation for a film. For the industry, the duration of the applause serves as an indicator of the potential of a title. And every year, but especially this one, the cheers are reminiscent of the pleasures of slowing down and appreciating art. Yet, as in the world of theater, the standing ovation can become an obligation. When such effusive demonstrations host every film, what is the audience really expressing? Kellie Lail, critic and Cannes participant who caught the five-minute standing ovation for Still water, expressed a common criticism: “The fact that this is not a given at other festivals makes me wonder if the standing ovations received in other places are more honest reactions from the public. “

When I spoke on the phone with Cristina Bicchieri, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies social norms, for 15 minutes, while a Cannes audience applauded Capernaum in 2018 – she told me the gesture could be attributed to an ancient Roman celebration, “a sign of respect” for generals returning from the countryside. At a film festival, and at old Cannes in particular, a similar bow is at work.

In fact, Cannes’ remarkably long standing ovations provide excellent models for how humans subconsciously influence each other. They illustrate how we initiate group actions, signal approval, and return those signals or reject them. “It’s fun to watch them as a sociological exercise,” Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied standing ovations as a model of social behavior, told me. During our conversation – 20 minutes, about the time that a Cannes audience applauded Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 — Page suggested that the audience inside a theater at the film festival is a microcosm of a social network. “There is a real asymmetry as to who has influence,” he explained.

At the head of the social hierarchy are the cast and crew of the film, who are likely prominent names, seated in a position visible (perhaps on screen) to the rest of the audience. This audience is usually made up of moviegoers inclined to show respect, even if they find the film lacking. Because standing ovations usually start in front of the audience, those who could afford the best seats, perhaps friends of the film crew or the wealthiest attendees, get the rest of the audience to stand up. Those who do not have such influence are powerless to follow. Even if they decide not to engage, they are not in a position to influence anyone else.

The Cannes pageantry therefore has a specific effect: because it emphasizes the difference in status between participants, audience members in the back rows are more likely to follow the opinion of the crowd. “If people are really sure about their own ratings, then they won’t resist,” Page said. “But if you are not sure and think that the others [around you] are smarter than you, then you are go stand up … I imagine that Cannes is a place [where if I ask myself,] “How confident am I sitting next to movie stars and directors? The answer is, “Not very. “

Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, explained in our conversation – which lasted 12 minutes, about the time that a Cannes audience applauded. The artist in 2011, that Cannes demonstrated a “hierarchy of prestige”, a distinctly human phenomenon in which we seek connection more than survival. In a social setting such as a film festival, where writers and stars sit among the audience, participants have the chance to imagine – or even create – a social bond with celebrities. “It’s about getting close to the animals that can confer a benefit,” he said. “It’s an extreme illustration of our inevitable desire to be social animals.” Anna Smith, podcast host Girls at the cinema, who went to Cannes this year, told me, “If you stand near the cast and crew and liked the movie, it can be exhilarating.

So if you find yourself facing a wall of seemingly uninterrupted applause, how can you, well, interrupt it without ostracizing yourself and losing all social status? The Cannes people told me that it was possible to get away from the tribe and stop applauding, or slip away before the end of the screening. Often, however, filmmakers have to take the microphone and signal the end of the applause so that they can deliver a speech. This, Bicchieri explained, is the best way to wrap up such a long applause anyway, as most spectators will draw inspiration from the most important figures in the hall. “They ask for permission to stop, and then little by little you can have a ripple effect,” she said. It is simply human to seek approval, even when it comes to methods of expressing approval. “The point is,” Bicchieri said, “you don’t want to be the one to stop.”


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