By Eve O’Dea
The jury of the Cannes Film Festival has a long history of finding loopholes in its own rulebook. At the first festival held in 1946, as mentioned in my essay recounting the history of the festival, the jury awarded the first Grand Prix to eleven films from eleven different countries as a triumphant response to the end of World War II and an attempt to promote appreciation for international cinema. The following year the award went to five films, and in the next decades, the prize has regularly been awarded to two films at a time. The actual title of the festival’s highest honor has flipped several times over the decades between Palme d’Or and Grand Prix, only to settle for the former in 1975. This tendency toward rule-breaking to spread the wealth amongst as many films, filmmakers, and nations as possible is one of the reasons why the film-loving community so greatly appreciates the festival, and it remains unpredictable year after year.
Unlike the highest honor at the Academy Awards, which awards the Best Picture Oscar to a film’s team of producers, or the Best International Feature Oscar that goes to the film’s country of origin, the Palme d’Or has always gone to the film’s director. This is in keeping with the Auteur Theory established by French film critics in the 1950s, which argues that the director has the ultimate artistic hand in the filmmaking process. The past winners include some of the most recognizable, celebrated filmmakers in history, such as Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Martin Scorsese, Bob Fosse, Wim Wenders, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jane Campion, Abbas Kiarostami, Luchino Visconti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jacques Demy, Luis Buñuel, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant, and Frederico Fellini, to name a few. Included in this list of nearly a hundred (primarily male) names sits those of a pair of French actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, for their stunning performances in the controversial Abdellatif Kechiche-directed, “Blue Is The Warmest Colour.”
Of course, there is more to be won at the Cannes Film Festival than the Palme d’Or, and there is more than just one Palme to be won. A swath of adjacent Palme awards has sprung up over the years, such as the Queer Palme, Short Film Palme, Palm Dog (an award given to canine actors), the Caméra d’Or (for first-time directors), and the Prix Un Certain Regard, an award given to films with non-traditional style and storytelling technique. As at most major international festivals, the jury also offers awards for the festival’s best actor, actress, screenplay, and director (an award separate but not mutually exclusive from the Palme d’Or recipient). Despite the existence of these traditional categories, the jury occasionally goes out of their way to give an individual or film a “special mention” prize outside of those already established. This practice was prevalent in the 1950s, with several actors and actresses awarded special mentions rather than Best Actress or Actor awards. For her Oscar-winning performance in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” Shirley Boothe was given the special mention in 1952. Actors Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner won a joint special award for their performances in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ “The Shop on Main Street,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best International Feature in 1967. Adorably, the entire cast of Charles Walter’s “Lili,” including Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer, was given a special mention “for the charming acting” in 1953. Only two, Tatyana Samoliova for “The Cranes are Flying” and Charles Vanel for “The Wages of Fear,” were awarded for films that also won the Palme d’Or. The special mention award has been especially rare over the past few decades, having last been awarded to director Elia Suleiman in 2019 for his film “It Must Be Heaven.”
Since 2002, the festival has sporadically awarded a non-competitive Honorary Palme d’Or (called the Palme des Palmes initially when Ingmar Bergman posthumously received the inaugural award in 1997) to a person based on their lifelong contribution to film. As well as a handful of directors, writers, and producers, the award has been given to ten actors over the years:
Woody Allen (2002)
Jeanne Moreau (2003)
Catherine Deneuve (2005)
Jane Fonda (2007)
Clint Eastwood (2009)
Jean-Paul Belmondo (2011)
Jean-Pierre Léaud (2016)
Alain Delon (2019)
Jodie Foster (2021)
Tom Cruise (2022)
Forest Whitaker (2022)
In 2003, the Cannes jury awarded Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” three major awards; the Jury Prize (for Haneke), Best Actress for Isabelle Huppert, and Best Actor for Benoît Magimel. Upon the film’s unprecedented success, a rule was established to forbid any film from being awarded this many awards in the future. The exact limit of this rule is up for debate, as two years later, both the Palme d’Or and Best Director prizes were given to Gus van Sant for his film “Elephant.” This regulation makes sense when considering the festival’s foundation of spreading the wealth between multiple titles and nations.
Ten years later, another unprecedented event occurred at the 2013 awards ceremony. This year’s competition featured films from Steven Soderbergh, Paolo Sorrentino, the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Asghar Farhadi. The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or ended up being Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche. Of course, this is not the end of the story. While presenting the winner, jury president Steven Spielberg announced: “The jury has taken the exceptional step of recognizing the achievement of three artists with the presentation of the Palme d’Or. These artists are Adèle, Léa, and Abdellatif Kechiche.”
With this “exceptional step,” Exarchopoulos and Seydoux became only the second and third ever female winners of the award (this number has now risen to four with last year’s “Titane” director Julia Ducournau ) and the only people ever to win a Palme d’Or for an acting performance that was not “honorary” or “special.” Exarchopoulos is also the youngest person ever to receive this award.
In a panel interview after the ceremony, Spielberg shared the background reasoning for the jury’s unanimous decision, stating that the jury members felt “privileged” to have been “invited to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning.” He continued by saying that the jury was “absolutely spellbound by the brilliance of the performances of those two amazing young actresses and all the cast, and especially the way the director observed his players. We just all thought it was a profound love story.”
This high praise indicates performances that were not only excellent in themselves but essential to the structure, language and ultimate feeling of the film. Had any other actresses been cast, the film would have turned out completely different. Before and after the film’s Cannes success, the actresses shared insight into their filming experience with scores of interviewers. Frequently asked, of course, were questions about the film’s explicit and lengthy sex scenes, to which the women repeatedly responded with stories about their comfort acting together and the lack of “sexiness” present in the filming of an intimate scene. Their relationship with the film’s director led to even greater moments of controversy. On the red carpet at the film’s premiere and the awards ceremony, the women appear to show nothing but great love and affection for Kechiche. However, in interviews, they share what seems to be great exhaustion from Kechiche’s unorthodox style of improvisational filmmaking and emotionally demanding performances.
Though reports of the actresses’ negative relationship with the director appear to have been exaggerated and perhaps skewed by translation, Kechiche has not done himself any favors with his reaction to what should have been a triumphant moment for himself and his brilliant actresses. He considered the awarding of three Palmes an insult to him as a director and an act of flagrancy. “Who decreed this new rule and on the strength of what? Can one go around giving Palmes on a whim just because one presides over a festival?” The past few years of Kechiche’s career have been marred by claims of sexual assault from an unnamed French actress and unethical work environments from his crew. Meanwhile, Seydoux has gained international success from her role in the two most recent “James Bond” films and has become a modern staple of the Cannes red carpet due to her work with acclaimed directors such as Wes Anderson, Yorgos Lanthimos, Xavier Dolan, and David Cronenberg in his latest feature, “Crimes of the Future.” Exarchopoulos continues to work as a familiar face of French cinema, branching out into both dramatic and comedic roles, also making frequent appearances at Cannes.
Considering the unpleasantness that accompanies Kechiche’s name, there is a degree of comfort in the knowledge that 2013’s top prize was not totally wasted on an unsavory character but served to promote the careers of two terrific young actresses. With this year’s film festival coming to a close, there is no telling what sort of a surprise the jury (headed by French actor Vincent Lindon) will present us with on Saturday. Some greats are likely to be honored, given the festival’s history, while new faces will be introduced to the world.
Who do you think will win the next Palme d’Or? What are your thoughts on “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and the careers Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos have had since the film’s premier win 2013? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Eve and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EveOnFilm