The origins of France’s Cannes Film Festival lay not in La République, but neighboring Italy. Specifically, 1937’s Venice Film Festival, when Benito Mussolini stuck his big, fat fascist fingers in the mix and ensured that The Grand Illusion from French filmmaker Jean Renoir — easily one of the greatest pacifist movies ever made — did not win the festival’s top prize. The following year, Mussolini and crony Adolf Hitler conspired to award an Italian war film and a German documentary top honors.
Future allies England, France and the U.S. had enough and pulled out. To hell with the Venice Film Festival, they’d create their own. And on Aug. 31, 1939, La Festival International du Film held opening ceremonies in the tourist town of Cannes along the French Riviera. The following day Germany invaded Poland. The war was on, and the festival was off, canceled until September 1946.
It took a while for Cannes to find its footing. In ’48 and ’50, the festival was canceled due to budgetary problems. In 1951, the festival was rescheduled to May so as not to compete with Venice, and in 1955 the festival revamped its top prize from the Grande Prix to the Palme d’Or, modeled after the palm trees lining the Promenade de la Croisette. The Palme d’Or has come to signify the top prize in cinema — an honor bestowed on movies both of a time and timeless. Below are four you can stream right now (find a fifth here).
Marty: The inaugural recipient of the award, Delbert Mann’s Marty was the only film to win both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture. That was until ‘Parasite’ came along in 2019. There are a few thematic similarities between the two, though Marty sticks firmly with the have-nots. Ernest Borgnine stars as the titular butcher and every Italian mother in his corner of the Bronx wonders when he’ll get married. Then Clara (Betsy Blair) walks by, and Marty finally sees a girl within reach. It’s a lonely film; populated by sad, lonely mothers, sad, lonely sons, and women who aren’t yet sad and lonely but will be once the world grinds them down. It’s a kitchen sink drama, one where it doesn’t take much to find a Hollywood ending. Thank goodness it does. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Black Orpheus: The Greek myth of Orpheus descending to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice has been adapted numerous times by filmmakers, but few as good as Marcel Camus’ Brazilian treatment of the story. Set during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival and featuring music from bossa nova legends Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, Black Orpheus is an elative fever dream. Streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy.
Dancer in the Dark: Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a sadist, and a proud one at that. He likes to put his characters (mostly women) through hell and back just to see if they’ll come out the other side. They do, and it’s uplifting — until you stop to wonder if they needed to go so low in the first place. Then again, that’s life. ‘Dancer in the Dark’ might be his best, and Björk might be his best conduit. She plays Selma, a Czech immigrant suffering from a degenerative eye disorder. It’s a rare, hereditary disease, and it’ll steal her sight but not the song in her heart. To save her son from a similar fate, Selma works tirelessly in a dreary Pacific Northwest factory pinching pennies to pay for his surgery. Would that it were so simple. Streaming on Vudu.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Director Jacques Demy sought to make a movie that would make audiences cry. He succeeded in spades. It helps that Michelle Legrande provided one of the most indelible film scores of all time, and cinematographer Jean Rabier found the sourness in candy-coated Eastmancolor. Catherine Deneuve is radiant as the 16-year-old Geneviève, who falls for Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic with humble aspirations. Geneviève sells umbrellas at her mother’s shop, and everything looks like an old Hollywood movie. And no one talks, they sing. They sing every single line in the film no matter how banal. It’s ecstatic and frivolous, but war intervenes, and beauty that was once taken for granted is now sorely missed. Exaltation turns to elegy, and life goes on. It has one of the best endings in all of cinema — if it doesn’t break your heart, nothing will. Streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy.