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By Martin Keady · May 20, 2022
In a way, Cannes has always been the anti-Oscars, the film festival that has celebrated strange, original, and non-English language cinema ahead of the straighter, more repetitive, and almost universally English language cinema championed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
With Cannes 75 in full swing, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, looks back at the winners of the Palme d’Or (or Golden Palm) over the last three-quarters of a century and attempts to determine which one is the most golden of all.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho; Written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won
Parasite is one of only three films ever to win both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture, and the previous two – Marty (1955) and The Lost Weekend (1945) – had achieved their triumphs over 60 years earlier.
Based on, or at least inspired by, writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s own experience of having been a tutor to a wealthy family in Seoul (and then wondering whether they could somehow afford to employ his whole impoverished family), its plot of a poor family secretly living with and even preying upon a wealthier one is the perfect cinematic metaphor for the increasing divide between rich and poor throughout the world.
Directed by Delbert Mann; Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Marty was the first-ever official winner of the Palme d’Or; the prize for Best Film at Cannes had been awarded since 1946, but it was nearly a decade later before it was renamed and the new name stuck.
At a time when movies still dominated TV (a picture that has probably been reversed over the last 65 years or so), Marty began life as a teleplay but was so successful on the small screen that it was soon adapted (and enlarged) for the big screen. But whatever the size of the screen, the size of Marty’s dream – that of an apparently ordinary Italian-American butcher who yearns for love, or at least a date – remains huge.
Directed by Orson Welles; Screenplay by Orson Welles
More than a decade on from his triumph at the Oscars with Citizen Kane, Orson Welles had become largely alienated (or even ostracized) from Hollywood and instead plied his trade, on screen and stage, mainly in Europe. There were several outstanding products of this period of exile (including another one that features even higher on this list), but one of the most memorable was his film, Othello.
Even though it was filmed on and off throughout Europe and North Africa over a number of years, while Welles took acting jobs to pay for it, Welles’s Othello was far better than his “B-Movie Macbeth” (1948). And although the white Welles would probably (and probably rightly) be prevented from playing Shakespeare’s jealous Moor in the 21st century, it is hard to argue that there has ever been a better screen Iago than Micheál Mac Liammóir, or ever will be.
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; Written by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix
It is entirely appropriate that the source material for Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a graphic novel because the film itself is nothing if not graphic. Obviously, that is explicitly the case in the many and prolonged lesbian sex scenes between schoolgirl Adèle and her older lover Emma, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux respectively, in performances so powerful and truthful that both actresses shared a special prize from Cannes.
However, what is ultimately more enduring, especially after director Abdellatif Kechiche was later criticized by both actresses for his on-set treatment of them, is the emotional explicitness of the film, showing how homosexual love can be just as possessive and controlling as heterosexual love.
Directed by Lindsay Anderson; Screenplay by David Sherwin
In 1968, there was no Cannes Film Festival at all; it was canceled midway through in what was described as an act of solidarity with the striking students and workers who had brought almost all of France to a standstill in the “May riots”. Consequently, it was perfectly fitting that when the festival resumed a year later, its highest accolade should have gone to If…, Lindsay Anderson’s superb and still-stunning depiction of youthful revolt, even if that revolt took place in an English public school rather than on a Parisian street.
In what is Malcolm McDowell’s greatest screen performance outside A Clockwork Orange, he plays a teenage boy struggling to fit into his school and his society’s strict structures, who eventually (and literally) takes to the rooftops to exact his revenge.
Directed and Written by Mike Leigh
Secrets & Lies is not only one of Mike Leigh’s best films; it is also undoubtedly his most critically and commercially successful film, having been hailed at both Cannes in 1996 and at the Oscars the following year. It features Timothy Spall, Leigh’s most enduring screen alter-ego, as a wedding and portrait photographer whose family is thrown into turmoil when his sister, played by Brenda Blethyn, is reunited with the daughter she had given up for adoption decades earlier.
In its sublime combination of humor (for example, the famous “You missed a bit!” line about an undiligent street-cleaner) and pathos, it is genuinely tragicomic, showing how every family has its own “secrets & lies.”
Directed and Written by Steven Soderbergh
Sex, Lies and Videotape was probably the most successful independent (or “indie”) movie of the 1980s, whose triumph at Cannes led to its becoming a global box-office smash, which set writer-director Steven Soderbergh on his way to cinematic greatness.
Arguably, it remains his best film, as it brilliantly depicts a love quadrangle between a married couple, the wife’s sister, and the husband’s old college friend, a drifter who returns after years of absence with a compelling desire to film women talking about their most intimate sexual secrets. The presence of the word “Videotape” in the film’s title may date it slightly, but its themes of trust, betrayal, and the importance of truthfulness to any relationship are truly eternal.
Directed by Joseph Losey; Screenplay by Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter was not only a great playwright (arguably Britain’s best since World War II) but a great screenwriter. That was particularly true of the trilogy of films that he wrote for American director-in-exile, Joseph Losey, who had fled Hollywood after being blacklisted as a Communist in the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s.
For all the excellence of The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967), it was The Go-Between that completed the artistic hat-trick and sealed the Losey-Pinter relationship as one of the most important between any director and screenwriter. In particular, Pinter’s extraordinary use of flashbacks and even flash-forwards, which was perhaps inspired by the original novel’s most famous line (“The past is a different country: they do things differently there”), is an absolute must-see and must-read for any screenwriter interested in using, or even bending, time to tell their story.
Directed by Billy Wilder; Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett
Alongside Parasite and Marty, The Lost Weekend is the third film to achieve what might be considered the ultimate cinematic “Double Act” of winning both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture. It was one of the finest products of Billy Wilder’s first great screenwriting partnership, with Charles Brackett, the second coming nearly a decade later with I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he would complete the ultimate cinematic comedy “Double Act” of Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).
In its still-powerful portrayal of a writer so afflicted by alcoholism that he stashes spare bottles in the ceiling fan, The Lost Weekend was the first great cinematic portrayal of alcoholism and arguably remains one of the finest of all films about the potentially demonic nature of the drink.
Directed and Written by Jacques Demy
With all due respect to the many marvels (and prodigious output) of Bollywood, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is probably the greatest non-English language film musical. It tells the love story of Catherine Deneuve’s Genevieve and Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy in the titular French city, especially when the Algerian War of Independence conspires to keep them apart, but the film and all its umbrellas are really borne aloft by the magnificent music and lyrics of the great Michel Legrand, who was arguably the finest non-English language composer of pop music in the 1960s.
A truly Technicolour riot of art, life, and love, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the greatest French films ever made and so is deservedly regarded as one of the finest ever winners of the Palme d’Or.
Directed by Wim Wenders; Written by L. M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or, as it is one of the most European of all American road movies. Featuring the great Harry Dean Stanton in a rare leading role that proved to be his defining screen performance, Paris, Texas captures both the huge expanse of America, especially its deserts, and the claustrophobia that even the most loving relationship can induce.
The climax comes when Stanton’s Harry, a drifter through the desert, tries to reunite with his lost love, Jane (played by a never-better and never-more-beautiful Nastassja Kinski), but can only do by talking to her through the artificial divide of a “peep show” window. And the point at which their two faces appear to be superimposed on each other is one of the most heartbreaking in all of cinema, simultaneously showing their closeness and the distance between them.
Directed by Joel Coen; Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
From Orson Welles onwards, Cannes has always loved US auteurs, perhaps none more so than the Coen Brothers and their unique slice of “Hollywood Noir”, Barton Fink, which in its own strange, post-modern way is as chilling a depiction of the sheer insignificance of the screenwriter in cinema as Sunset Boulevard.
John Turturro plays the titular playwright-turned-hack, who is stuck in a proto-“Hotel California”, where the wallpaper literally oozes free from the walls, alongside John Goodman as Charlie Meadows, who is supposed to be a traveling salesman even though he never seems to leave his room. One of the Coen Brothers’ finest films and one of the finest films ever about Hollywood (especially its golden era), Barton Fink is a masterpiece that is both meticulous and full of madness.
Directed and Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola enjoyed such a truly imperial phase in the 1970s that he could somehow make masterpieces while making other masterpieces. Famously, The Conversation was the film that he made between The Godfather and The Godfather II, leaving it (quite fittingly, given the subject matter) to his sound man Walter Murch to complete when he had to begin filming The Godfather II.
Nevertheless, The Conversation is worthy of comparison to Coppola’s greatest work, including the first two Godfather films, in its uncannily prophetic depiction of a surveillance expert, played by Gene Hackman in one of his greatest ever performances, who gradually begins to doubt the veracity of what he is hearing. Coppola always claimed that The Conversation was partly inspired by a previous Palme d’Or winner, Antonioni’s Blow-Up. However, just as The Godfather II expands upon the original Godfather, in being both a prequel and a sequel, so The Conversation is superior to its supposed source material or inspiration.
Directed and Written by Quentin Tarantino
It is now thirty years since Quentin Tarantino first exploded into the global cinematic consciousness with Reservoir Dogs (1992), with its then-unique but subsequently much-copied blend of extreme violence and throwaway pop-culture references.
However, it was his follow-up, Pulp Fiction, which proved beyond doubt that Tarantino was a major writer-director and not just a purveyor of cheap thrills. With its extraordinary “snake-swallowing-its-tail”, or ouroboros, structure, Pulp Fiction gave full vent to all of Tarantino’s obsessions: pop culture, particularly surf music; superb dialogue, which was apparently banal but actually profoundly authentic and complex; and sex, drugs, and ultraviolence.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; Written by Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius
Apocalypse Now actually shared the Palme d’Or with Volker Schlöndorff’s screen adaptation of Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, but for all the undoubted merits of Schlöndorff’s film it has not had the enduring appeal or influence of Apocalypse Now, one of the most spectacular and storied films ever made, which brought Coppola’s extraordinary 1970s to an end and with it, arguably, his greatness as a filmmaker.
It was also a reminder of the supreme importance of Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, on which it was loosely based. Given that Orson Welles had originally planned to film Heart of Darkness before abandoning it to make Citizen Kane, it is arguably the literary work that has had the greatest influence on film, prompting two truly great directors, Welles and Coppola, to produce two of their finest works.
Directed by Robert Altman; Screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr.
One of the few directors who could even begin to compete with Coppola in the 1970s for the range, depth, and quality of his output was Robert Altman, and his own staggering Seventies began with the release of MASH in 1970. As many viewers have discovered, the film has little in common with the subsequent TV series, being far darker, bloodier, funnier, and crazier in its examination of the Vietnam War through the lens of the Korean War two decades earlier.
Along with Easy Rider (1969), it was the film that brought the counter-culture to mainstream cinema and so constituted a perfect form of revenge for screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. He was one of “The Hollywood Ten” who had been blacklisted for their supposed Communist sympathies in the 1950s, but he returned to Hollywood two decades later to help blow it apart.
Directed by Federico Fellini; Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and an uncredited Pier Paolo Pasolini
The list of writers of La Dolce Vita is almost as long as most films’ closing credits, which is a testament to the convivial and truly collaborative screenwriting, or “team-writing”, that Fellini fostered in almost all of his early and mid-career films, embracing fellow luminaries such as Tullio Pinelli and a young Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Arguably, it was only when Fellini focused on writing on his own that his later films became more self-obsessed, invariably featuring his own name in the title (Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, Fellini Satyricon et al). But in 1960, all the fizz and flair of a great screenwriting team was on display in his portrayal of a society photographer, or ‘paparazzo’, who gradually becomes disillusioned with the supposed beauty and grandeur that he is photographing.
Directed by Luchino Visconti; Screenplay by Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile and René Barjavel
To adapt di Lampedusa’s novel for the screen, Visconti assembled an even bigger team of screenwriters than Fellini had for La Dolce Vita, but once again the sheer number of different writers, which is usually a recipe for disaster or at the very least artistic compromise, seemed to work in the film’s favor, giving it the multiple characters and multiple viewpoints that were essential to document the decline of a once-great aristocrat (the big cat of the title) at the end of the 19th century.
The Leopard may be the greatest period drama ever made and it certainly shows a lot of the things that most period dramas leave out, notably the numerous piss-pots required for an aristocratic party to relieve itself after a grand banquet. Famously one of Martin Scorsese’s “Five Films To Live By” (alongside Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Pather Panchali, and The Red Shoes), The Leopard is a grand cinematic retelling of a great novel, with the cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno literally capturing the harsh and penetrating Sicilian sunlight in a way that no book ever could.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérome Geronimi
Le Salaire de la Peur (or The Wages Of Fear) is arguably the greatest action movie ever made, principally because unlike so many so-called “action” films it is based on the harshest of realities and not the most puerile of fantasies.
In an unnamed banana republic, a group of European exiles is desperate to earn enough money to return home, but the only way that they can do so is by accepting what amounts to a suicide mission: driving trucks full of gelignite across a mountain range to the oilfield on the other side, where the high-explosive will be used to put out a fire. Only the occasional use of backdrops, a la Hitchcock, dates Le Salaire de la Peur. Everything else, especially the sheer desperation of men prepared to do such dangerous work, rings truer now than ever.
Directed by Carol Reed; Screenplay by Graham Greene
And the winner is (cue drum roll and indeed the unrolling of a classic Cannes red carpet)… The Third Man. It is perhaps ironic that arguably the best British film ever made should have been honored by a French film festival, but Cannes, despite its predilection for the odd, the unusual, and the un-English, has also maintained a strong tradition of celebrating cinematic excellence wherever it hails from.
Thus, in 1949, as the festival began again after the continent-wide tragedy of World War II, it was absolutely right and appropriate that it should award its grand prize to the film that, more than any other, captured the sheer destruction of the war and the almost impossible difficulty of rebuilding afterward. If Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) is the greatest studio creation in the history of cinema, then The Third Man is the greatest location shoot, as Joseph Cotten’s Western writer Holly Martins pursues his lost (presumed dead) friend Harry Limes through the sewers of Vienna. Golden Palms may not actually grow in such an unpleasant setting, but The Third Man is arguably the greatest ever winner of the Palme d’Or.
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/