Cannes 2021

Cannes Film Festival prepares for red carpet return after Covid cancellation

Directors Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Roman Polanski and Louis Malle (standing) on strike during the Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the French students, 18th May 1968.
Directors Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Roman Polanski and Louis Malle (standing) on strike during the Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the French students, 18th May 1968. © GettyImages

As cinemas reopen across France, the Cannes Film Festival is waiting patiently in the wings. Traditionally held in May, the 2021 event has been rescheduled for July, and excitement is mounting – especially after last year's cancellation due to Covid-19. But it's not the first time the glamorous event has been disrupted. RFI looks back at some the drama of Cannes.

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Usually at this time of year, the red carpet is rolled out in the southeast of France for the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, an annual two-week event which attracts the crème de la crème of world cinema.

Organisers have cautiously chosen to hold the 2021 edition from 6-17 July instead of in May, hoping to benefit from the lifting of Covid lockdown restrictions which have seen cinemas and events closed to the public for the last six months.

Originally known as the International Film Festival, it was conceived in 1938 by then education minister Jean Zay. Cannes was chosen as a location for its touristic appeal and the promise of funding.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, was screened at the festival’s first opening night on 31 August 1939, in the presence of numerous stars including Cary Grant and Mae West.

However, the excitement was short lived and the rest of the festival was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII. 

After the war, there was renewed enthusiasm to get the festival back on track. As a result, 1946 was a bumper year, with no fewer than 11 films tying for the Grand Prix.

In the early years, the festival faced several setbacks. In 1948 and 1950, the event was not held due to budget problems.

In 1951, the festival was moved to May rather than September to avoid clashing with the Venice equivalent.

Eventful 1968

As the Cannes event continued to grow, society was changing rapidly. The year 1968 was one of high drama in France, and the festival found itself caught up in the growing civil unrest and general strike which brought the country to a standstill.

The tension had begun earlier in the year when the president of the Cinémathèque Française Henri Langlois was removed from his position. This led to a number of protests by filmmakers such as François Truffaut, and Langlois was eventually reinstated.

By 10 May, when the festival officially opened, the tension had heightened considerably in Paris and there were violent clashes between students and police who carried out a heavy crackdown.

On 18 May, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Claude Carrière as well as jury members Louis Malle and Roman Polanski announced in a press conference that, in solidarity with the workers and the students, the festival would be cut short.

Louis Malle, Monica Vitti, Roman Polanski, and Terence Young resigned from the international jury while Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura and Miloš Forman asked for the withdrawal of their films from the competition.

Saura's Peppermint Frappé had been due to screen that same evening. Accompanied by then girlfriend and protagonist of the film, Geraldine Chaplin, he jumped onto the stage and latched onto the curtains to prevent the screening. They were joined by Truffaut and Godard. There was a lively argument with the public, with punches reportedly thrown.

Gender inequality, sexism make their mark

Fast forward to the 2000s, and the festival remains a platform for social issues – one of the most recent being the quest for gender equality.

In 2018, 82 female stars staged a red-carpet protest against inequality and the need for "a safe workplace" following allegations of sexual misconduct against producer Harvey Weinstein which erupted in the widespread #MeToo movement.

Cannes director Thierry Frémaux announced that the festival was working towards a “5050x2020” plan for better representation of women in the cinema industry and, for the first time in its history, the selection committee was 50 percent women in 2019.

In 2019, there was another protest – this time over the awarding of the honorary Palme d'Or to Alain Delon, one of France’s best-known actors. More than 23,000 individuals signed an online petition against his receiving the award. In it, they called him a "racist, homophobic misogynist".

Coronavirus cripples Cannes

At that point, no-one could have guessed that Cannes was about to face yet another upheaval, a drama stranger than all films put together: the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Organisers of the 2020 festival initially announced a postponement, and held out until April before eventually cancelling outright, with only the Marché du Film held in June in a virtual format, and a small three-day festival for screening the 2020 selection in October.

Jury president Spike Lee brightened 2021 prospects by pledging his presence, and all of the films selected to run the 2020 edition were given “Cannes labels” to help with their marketing.

The 2021 edition will be held just a week after the last Covid restrictions and curfew will have been lifted on 30 June. Cinemas will be allowed to reopen at full capacity, while keeping health protocols in place.

But will crowds flow back in droves? Will everyone be vaccinated as promised by President Emmanuel Macron?

Clearly, the world will not return to "normal" in a hurry. And neither will the Cannes Film Festival – but after all, what would the event be without a touch of drama?

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