The Cannes Film Festival gets underway in earnest today, which almost inevitably means that some boos will cascade through some of theaters in a few days. The culture of booing in Cannes, while not quite as prevalent and random as it is at the Venice Film Festival, has even more of a stigma attached to it, purely due the highest-possible-profile nature of the festival, and the frequency with which it is the very auteur filmmakers that the festival has more or less created that get the lustiest jeers.
To be frank, booing is childish, and it’s always slightly embarrassing to watch a presumably sensible adult suddenly be overtaken by the spirit of a 4-year-old at a pantomime spying the Ugly Sisters for the first time. So no matter how much a given film stinks, it isn’t something that we ever participate in, and it should be noted that even on the most egregious occasions, non-booers outnumber the booers by a massive factor. But neither is it easy to ignore — that’s why the booers do it. It colors your view of the film’s reception and becomes part of that film’s Cannes narrative. And it’s often wildly undeserved, with many booed titles becoming recognized as bona fide masterpieces.
Here, we’re expanding our previous list of 10 to 20 such titles —some good, some great, some terrible— that got catcalled by press at their Cannes premiere. Feel free to respond in kind, or indeed give us a 10-minute standing ovation, in the comments below.
In this, Lars von Trier‘s “difficult” psychological horror movie, a married couple (fearlessly portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) unravels psychologically following the death of their infant son. The film is harrowing, explicit and somewhat insane, but the description of the reaction at the Cannes screening sounds no less so. According to a Reuters report from the time, “jeers and laughter broke out during scenes ranging from a talking fox to graphically-portrayed gender mutilation,” though arguably the New York Film Festival screening had Cannes beat on this score when someone fainted and had to be carried out of the theater. Perhaps missing the controversy, von Trier would wait until his comparatively bucolic “Melancholia” to make his infamous comments about Nazis, but did call himself “the best director in the world” at this time, while Gainsbourg won Best Actress. But the biggest surprise was those wits on the Ecumenical Jury awarding the film a special “anti-award” for what they perceived to be “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” Life after Cannes as a cult object was assured, and indeed that’s exactly what happened, right up to the imprimatur of a Criterion edition.
The chorus of booing got so deafening during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s beautiful but undeniably difficult “L’Avventura” that reportedly the filmmaker and his lead actress Monica Vitti fled the theater. This is remarkable for several reasons —first, that it’s rare that films get booed when the film team is present, and secondly that “L’Avventura,” as incisive a portrayal of bourgeois alienation as has ever been made, is a masterpiece. But it was then (as it still is now) a great example of unsettling audiences by subverting their expectations: the glacial pacing and disorienting non-traditional narrative structure, as well as its themes of alienation and estrangement can all add up to an experience too enervating for the easily distracted. But the negative reception was counterpointed when the film picked up the Jury Prize, and ever since then it has only become more firmly embedded in the pantheon of European art cinema. Same goes for Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” also starring Vitti, which premiered in Cannes two years later. And got booed.
“We Own The Night” (2007)
Widely regarded as having been embraced in Europe before he was established at home in the U.S., James Gray has played almost all his films at Cannes, including his stunning sophomore feature “The Yards” and 2013’s sumptuous period epic “The Immigrant.” The New York-born director also has kind things to say about the festival, implying that it’s a place for dedicated film lovers and for showcasing genuine works of cinematic art in an increasingly commercial landscape. Yet when Gray brought his third film —the Lumet-indebted crime drama “We Own The Night”— to the Croisette, the reception was decidedly mixed, with the American critics being most disapproving (The New York Times dismissed it disdainfully as “exceptionally conventional…an OK television movie”). To their credit, Gray and leading man Joaquin Phoenix both claimed they didn’t much care about the negative notices out of Cannes, and with good reason: though the movie’s world of Rah-ssian gangsters and dirty cops is a fairly familiar one, it’s a tightly crafted thriller and possibly Gray’s most purely entertaining work. And it contains the most visceral car chase to be seen on a big screen since “The French Connection.” There have been perplexing recipients of the Cannes booing tradition before and there will be again, but this one stands out as a time the booers got it wrong(er than usual).
“Marie Antoinette” (2006)
Sofia Coppola‘s hyper-stylized look at the life of the notorious (and probably apocryphally) cake-obsessed Queen consort (Kirsten Dunst) in the years leading up to the French Revolution occasioned a New York Times piece wittily titled “The Best Or Worst Of Times?,” which reported that the theater was “filled with lusty boos and a smattering of applause.” Countering, Roger Ebert claimed that, “not more than five people, maybe 10, booed,” and went onto defend the movie, awarding it four stars and noting that it was Coppola’s “third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you.” USA Today asked the filmmaker about the response. “I didn’t know about the boos,” Coppola said. “But it’s better than a mediocre response.” Still, the movie instantly gained as many strong defenders as critics among the press, before proving just as divisive with the public upon release, though most at least lauded Coppola’s gutsiness, if not her artistic follow through. While an underperformer at the box office, it did win the Best Costume Design Oscar and remains a cult favorite.
“Under the Sun of Satan” (1987)
In many ways, the reception that greeted Maurice Pialat‘s 1987 Palme d’Or winner has obscured the film itself. It might be that fewer people have actually watched the Gerard Depardieu/Sandrine Bonnaire-starrer than are aware of Pialat’s truculent acceptance speech, which included the words “I am, above all, happy this evening for all the shouts and whistles you’ve directed at me; and, if you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either” —surely the biggest ever “in your face, haterz” delivered from the Palais stage. But though we admire Pialat’s general DGAF spirit (the speech was reportedly accompanied by a certain obscene hand gesture), we’d be lying if we said the boos were altogether inexplicable: ‘Satan’ is willfully slow, perversely obscure and punishingly rigorous in its approach, and its story about a tormented priest who self-flagellates in an attempt to save the soul of a pregnant 16 year old is no picnic either. The film’s heavy religious themes (Pialat himself plays a despised elder priest in the film), strict formalism and unforgiving view of human folly make it a hard sell to this day (especially when two other works by the same author were adapted into the Robert Bresson masterpieces “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Mouchette“).