When it comes to pure prestige, no international cinema award can compete with the Palme D’Or. A Best Picture win at the Oscars generates more Hollywood currency, and there are certainly other high profile, global festival honors. (Victory at Venice or Berlin carries its own clout.) But the Palme D’Or, or “Golden Palm,” is of a class all its own. Handed out every May at the Cannes Film Festival, to what a jury of industry professionals considers to be the best narrative movie in competition, this coveted prize serves as a kind of instant imperative to cinephiles: Here is a film that must be seen, and grappled with, and debated. As of this writing, the most recent winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic-length lesbian romance Blue Is The Warmest Color, is still a topic of heated discussion among U.S. critics, and will likely remain so until it has come and gone from American theaters.
Why, though, has the Palme, more than any other annual cinema honor, gained such a tastemaker reputation? Part of it is the festival itself: Though it falls later on the calendar than Berlin, Cannes still feels like world cinema’s ground zero—an annual gathering of the medium’s masters, a two-week preview of many of the year’s most notable arthouse movies. When a film wins the Palme, it’s besting competition from a slate of renowned, revered directors. Blue Is The Warmest Color, for example, toppled new works from Roman Polanski, Steven Soderbergh, Jia Zhang-Ke, the Coen brothers, and more.
History, I’d wager, is the other reason that Cannes’ highest honor is sometimes thought of as cinema’s highest honor. Take a brief glimpse at the full list of Palme winners. Especially compared to the Oscars, Cannes has a strong track record—a 74-year tradition of celebrating masterpieces and saluting great artists. While it took the Academy decades to hand Martin Scorsese the big one—he finally won for The Departed, hardly a career high—Cannes was there in ’76, with a statuette for Taxi Driver. Orson Welles, who never won a Best Director Oscar, picked up his Palme for 1952’s Othello. And that’s to say nothing of the festival’s commitment to spreading the wealth, geographically speaking.
Still, looking at that long list of titles got me thinking. Setting aside the universally lauded classics—La Dolce Vita, Blow-Up, Apocalypse Now, etc.—how have the Palme winners held up over the years? It’s often remarked that the Oscars “got it wrong” much of the time, awarding Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley instead of Citizen Kane, picking Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, and so forth. But can Cannes claim a better ratio of strong picks to poor choices? Sure, Dancer In The Dark is a fine film, but is it really better than Yi Yi or In The Mood For Love or Code Unknown? (Spoiler alert: No, it isn’t.)
These types of questions are at the heart of Palme Thursday, which I’m thinking of as a kind of personal journey through the history of both Cannes and world cinema itself. In each entry, I’ll be examining a different Palme winner, with an eye towards how it looks today, why it may have won—hint: the head of the jury often plays a big role—and whether it deserved the top honor. When I see fit, I’ll also compare the film to the year’s Oscar winner, noting rare instances in which The Academy actually made a better call than Cannes. There will be no discernible rhyme or reason to the order in which I’ll plow through the list, beyond a conscious attempt to switch up the decade and country-of-origin as often as possible. (In other words, I’ll try not to cover two French films or two ’60s winners consecutively.) It’s my hope that readers will join me on this voyage; most of the films are available for rent or purchase, and I’ll indicate at the end of each piece which movie I’ll be writing about next.
A couple of notes before I embark: Technically, some of the films discussed will not be Palme D’Or winners; from 1939 through 1954, and again from 1964 to 1974, the Grand Prix was the festival’s main prize. Also, in keeping with the fest’s commitment to honoring a wide swath of movies, there were quite a few ties awarded over the years. In the case of multiple winners, I’ll compare and contrast, and declare a single deserving champ. Keep your eyes peeled for my piece on 1946, when Cannes split the award among 11 films. Now that I mention it, I’d better start watching those now…