France's film critics are the country's gift to world cinema. And at the Cannes Film Festival, they have their time in the spotlight, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.8:17PM BST 13 May 2011
If it's May on the Riviera, it must be time for the Cannes Film Festival – and for another whine about how commercial everything has become. How could a festival meant to celebrate the art of cinema sell its soul to Hollywood's increasingly over-inflated blockbusters?
Rather than parading up and down the Croisette, getting photographed on the beach in skimpy bikinis, and generally doing the right thing by their fans, stars and jury members remain incarcerated in a soulless concrete bunker that looks and feels like the venue for a trade fair (which it is for the other 350 days of the year). Once inside, they're protected by a phalanx of press officers, a regiment of Navy Seals, and stricter retinal scans and background checks than for marrying into the Royal family.
Why do the French put up with it? Why demonstrate an entirely atypical flair for crass commerce by superimposing on to the main event – as well as elevated competitions like Semaine de la Critique – the Cannes Film Market, a roaring convention taking up the cavernous basement of the Palais des Festivals, where hawkers from around the globe will cheerfully sell you the rights to direct-to-video gems such as Combat Girls, Turn me on, Goddammit and The Godfathers of Ganja?
The answer is simple. Yes, Cannes might be a bit tasteless. But for the French, the whole affair still preserves the ultimate in filmic fiction: that it's our opinion that matters. Sure, we might not have been able to sell any of our television series between Inspector Gadget and Spiral. Sure, our last Oscar-winner may have been March of the Penguins. But by Guillaume, we're going to be the arbiters of cool in all things cinema. To that end, we happily bring the world's biggest stars to Cannes to run the gauntlet of a gang of critics wielding Derrida like a semi-automatic, and slather it in enough Gallic glamour to make Oscar night look like The Sarah-Jane Adventures.
There is none of that nonsense that afflicts the Oscars about voting by members of the Academy: the process of jury selection, as well as the ultimate choice of competing entries, is shrouded in opacity. Gilles Jacob, the president-for-life of the festival committee, has even, in Hosni Mubarak fashion, appointed his son to the four-person body that picks the 12 foreign entries in the Sélection Officielle from some 4,000 hopefuls.
The actual jury, picked with a canny eye for the best mix of star power and intellectual cred, changes every year. This time round, it includes Uma Thurman, Robert De Niro (as the chair), "Norwegian critic Linn Ullmann", as well as directors from France, China, Chad, an Argentinian "producer-actress", a Chinese producer, and Jude Law.
If this seems to be taking inclusiveness slightly too far, it is entirely intended. After the post-war years, when the French government supported the Festival as a way to rebuild the country's film industry, it gradually evolved into the magical meeting place of the movie world: Hollywood, Cinecittà, Ealing. And when François Truffaut deservedly snatched the Palme d'Or in 1959 for The 400 Blows, he and his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critics turned Nouvelle Vague auteurs provided France with a cachet on which we have been trading ever since.
France has, admittedly, always been the best place in the world to see films. In those remote times before VHS, the 500-plus arthouses of Paris far exceeded in number and variety the choices available in New York, let alone the wastelands of London. After school, I picked up an invaluable crash course in the film culture of the past 70 years, ranging from Glauber Rocha to D W Griffith, from Billy Wilder to Antonioni, from John Ford to Karel Reisz, from Busby Berkeley to Ingmar Bergman.
And at the end of the day, the Cahiers crowd did make sense with their auteur theory, which maintains that a director is, in fact, the author of a unique work, not a hack standing behind the camera shouting directions. They were right about the distinctiveness of a film directed by Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Ophüls, Carné or Visconti. (They also had a sort of point about Jerry Lewis – it was, in a way, unique in its sheer godawfulness.)
Perhaps, then, our critics, as much as our films, are our gift to world cinema. The history of the Nouvelle Vague is largely one of backseat drivers who turned filmmakers, with a sometimes astonishing degree of success. When a fanboy named Steven Spielberg cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he was acknowledging an intellectual ascendancy which the French have been careful to perpetuate.
It was we, too, who were the first to lionise Clint Eastwood as an auteur in the 1980s. The process was masterminded by a single, not particularly successful journalist, Pierre Rissient, who decided to remake this B-movie star into a cultural icon. (He also championed Quentin Tarantino, as well as Aki Kaurismäki, proof of his singular eye.)
So yes, we French can be infuriating. But every now and then, we get it right.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011