Retrospective Roundtable

Provocative Premieres at Cannes

Cannes returns tomorrow! The biggest event in film, the festival is known for its red carpet appearances, setting the tone for the year’s films, outrageously long applauses, and occasionally stirring the pot. In this month’s Retrospective Roundtable, we look at a number of films that premiered at Cannes to immense surprise and provocation.

La Grande Bouffe (1973)

Marco Ferreri was one of Italy’s most significant directors in the 20th century. Despite this, his films are not widely known outside of Italy, perhaps because of Ferreri’s reputation as a provocateur. Nonetheless, Ferreri had a storied career, collaborating with actors such as Michel Piccoli, Ingrid Thulin, and Marcello Mastroianni, with three of his films appearing in Venice Days’ 100 film italiani da salvare, a collection of notable Italian films released between 1942 and 1978. His films provide an engaging dialogue when compared with those of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Ferreri’s best known film, La Grande Bouffe, premiered at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and revolves around a group of four friends who decide to enclose themselves in a villa and eat themselves to death. One might recall Thomas Vinterberg’s mid-life crisis film Another Round, but Ferreri’s dark and subversive storytelling couldn’t be anything further from Vinterberg’s humanistic approach in Another Round. La Grande Bouffe becomes an expression of anti-consumerism, illustrating a farcical slippery slope of the id allowed to be untempered. La Grande Bouffe is vulgar in its storytelling, mostly disgusting, but delivers its message abundantly clear – it’s no wonder Cannes audiences were less than thrilled with this one. – Alex Sitaras

Crash (1996)

When David Cronenberg‘s Crash, adapted from the 1973 novel of the same name by J. G. Ballard, premiered at the 49th Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and subsequently won the Special Jury Prize, jury president Francis Ford Coppola is said to have been so disgusted with the film that he refused to present the award to the Canadian filmmaker. Whether or not this story is true is unclear — the only source for the claim is Cronenberg himself — but going by the sustained post-festival controversy, it’s easy to think that there might be some truth to the oft-repeated account. So intense was the outrage, in fact, that The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard campaigned to have the film banned in the United Kingdom. Similarly, its U.S. release was delayed because Ted Turner, whose company Fine Line Features oversaw the release, was “bothered” by the transgressive subject matter.

In 1996, Cronenberg’s name didn’t quite carry the auteurist credibility it does today and he was seen by many as primarily a genre filmmaker — despite a dramatic turn with M. Butterfly in 1993, as well as a surreal and cerebral meditation on art and tragedy in the form of 1991’s Naked Lunch, a very loose adaptation of the “unfilmable” 1959 William S. Burroughs novel. His association with the lowbrow world of genre films likely played a part in the film being labeled everything from “violent” to “pornographic”, but history has been kind to the film, and the artsy cachet Cronenberg now enjoys can partly be traced back to the retrospective praise this icy erotic drama has garnered in the years since.

Although outwardly preoccupied with the human body and how it (quite literally) collides with technology, namely cars, Crash, like the book it’s based on, is more akin to a postmodern death poem, an elegy for the old ways of loving and dying. Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the charismatic car crash übermensch with a boundless sexual appetite, says as much, describing the “reshaping of the human body by modern technology” as a “crude sci-fi concept”. His true interest is the “benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us” and he envisions the car crash as a “fertilizing rather than a destructive event”, one charged with sexual energy that can only be released at the moment of death. Bernardo Bertolucci supposedly called the film “a religious masterpiece” — again, according to Cronenberg himself — and while such a statement might seem outrageous, the body horror maestro’s examination of, to quote the tagline, “love in the dying moments of the twentieth century” is nothing if not transcendent. – Fred Barrett

Irréversible (2002)

Gaspar Noé‘s sophomore feature Irréversible arguably received some of the most infamous reactions the Cannes Film Festival ever reported when it premiered in 2002. The film focuses on events throughout one traumatic night in Paris, unfolding in reverse-chronological order. Some critics deemed the film’s sexual violence as gratuitous, including the brutal raping of Monica Bellucci‘s character. Despite this, some critics praised the film, with a consensus on Rotten Tomatoes aptly stating: “Though well-filmed, Irréversible feels gratuitous in its extreme violence.”

And Irréversible does display some excellent filmmaking. Shot in Super 16mm with around a dozen unbroken shots fused from shorter takes, the film feels claustrophobic and simultaneously engaging despite the despicable actions and the elongated and sometimes swirling cinematography while the use of low-frequency sounds creates a sense of nausea. Understandably, some audiences would walk out of Irréversible because of these feelings, but I do not think this makes it necessarily a ‘bad’ film. Irréversible transports the audience beyond the confines of the cinema or one’s own home, albeit to an experience most of us would not choose if told about beforehand. However, Gaspar Noé probably never wanted to please everybody, and the fact that Irréversible stirs our thoughts and emotions is evidence of its staying power. – Ian Floodgate

Only God Forgives (2013)

When Nicolas Winding Refn returned to Cannes after the critical praise of his previous film, Drive, two years earlier at the festival, there was high anticipation for the director’s next project, Only God Forgives. As does Drive, the film stars Ryan Gosling, who plays a drug smuggler in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, who finds himself in a complicated situation when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death.

Cannes audiences are known for not holding back detest for a film, often booing films in this situation, and Only God Forgives is one of those films. It has striking visuals and synth music similar to Drive, but many critics labelled it as a hollow film with a minimal plot and devoid of character. It was always going to be hard to follow on from the surprise success of Drive. Unfortunately, the wider cinematic release was misguided for Only God Forgives, causing it to flop at the box office. Winding Refn perhaps was seen as a fascinating filmmaker with the potential for box office success before Only God Forgives. However, following up with another box office disappointment in The Neon Demon, he has found his talents more suited to television mini-series in recent years. – Ian Floodgate

Raw (2016)

For many, Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw evoked a physical response. From the time of its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in May to its US theatrical release in March the following year, Raw inspired headlines. At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, it was reported that a number of audience members fainted while viewing the film, and the relatively long time between Raw’s Cannes premiere and its US release as well as articles published seemingly every day on the responses audiences had to the film as it made its way through the festival circuit left many wondering ‘what possibly could be in this film?’.

Raw stars Garance Marillier as Justine, a lifelong vegetarian who develops a taste for meat shortly after starting studies at veterinary school. This begins as part of a hazing ritual, but quickly escalates when Justine realizes her craving for meat is insatiable, and this craving extends to that for human flesh. Raw depicts the discomfort that Justine faces when acclimating herself to university and her peers while failing to suppress her cannibalistic urges. Raw evokes a strong response from audiences not only for its horror, but also its depiction of peer pressure, hazing, and challenges of adapting to life on campus. After finally seeing the film, one might not regard it to be as gruesome as other horror flicks, but it leaves an impression that Ducournau would continue to refine in her return to the Cannes Film Festival five years later with her Palme d’Or winning Titane. – Alex Sitaras

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