‘In the service of cinematographic art’: The History of Cannes Film Festival
Festival de Cannes 2023: Tuesday 16th May-Saturday 27th May
We’re in the midst of one of the world’s most iconic and nostalgic film festivals – Festival de Cannes, which approaches its 80th anniversary in 2026, first held in 1946 to mark recognition of artistic achievement in the film industry. This revered ‘rendezvous’ tends to be deemed as the most prestigious in the world, and was founded ‘in the service of cinematographic art’. The Festival is now widely publicised as a major cultural event and forum for film-producing countries, and determining the artists, themes and works which have achieved the greatest impact and acclaim every year.
The festival’s history, however, is a tale of ‘resilience and idealism’, so stated Camille Périssé in her article re-telling the process from the festival’s birth to being properly established as the annual event we know it today.
The very first intonation of what was to become the ‘festival’ occurred in July 1938 as an international competition, the Venice Mostra, dedicated to the world of film. Major pre-war (WWII) film-producing nations gathered, and representing France, the diplomat Philippe Erlanger took a post in the jury. On the day of the awards ceremony, a unanimous vote named an American film as the favourite, however, it was ultimately ‘Pilot’ by Goffredo Alessandrini who took the ultimate prize – the Mussolini Cup. This was due to significant pressure placed on the jury from Hitler through his own Nazi propaganda film and another Italian film (as by then both Germany and Italy were allies). The end result outraged democratic countries – the USA and Great Britain left the competition group in light of the extreme and unfair pressures the competition was operating under.
Following this first and fraught instance, Philippe Erlanger thought to establish another event to replace the Mostra to offer a new event that would be independent of external political or social pressures. A rival French festival began being put into production, and between 1938 and 1939, had State involvement in France – government ministers were divided on the potential risks to foreign relations embedded in this project, while others decisively supported the idea of a film festival for Europe whose art would be removed from any influence or political manoeuvring, particularly within a time of such real political turmoil.
The festival was scheduled for the 1st September that year, the very same day as the Mostra. In order to match the prestige already associated with the Mostra, a list of French towns were pulled together as candidates to host the event – Biarritz was at first the main choice, however following convincing support by directors of local hotels and Georges Prade, a municipal councillor in Paris, Cannes was mobilised and selected as the site. On 31st May 1939, both local Cannes and national government authorities had signalled the official birth of the International Film Festival. By June 1939, the launch of a brand new international film festival hosted in France had been announced in the media, receiving global support led by the United States, with emphasis on the universal spirit of the event – each country would have a jury member representing them and each would receive a Grand Prix in the spirit of artistic objectivity and impartiality. Even Germany and Italy were invited, despite the context of political crisis that had been unfolding. The two nations ended up refusing to attend altogether, and so there were 9 nations in total represented which regardless represented some of the most powerful in the industry.
Then, in August 1939, news of the German-Soviet Pact came. Tourists dispersed from Cannes. On the day the festival was due to be inaugurated, Germany invaded Poland. By the 3rd September, war had been declared. The Festival Committee had organised a private screening of the only film to be featured in the festival, as the first in competition: ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ by William Dieterle. The festival’s launch was initially ‘postponed’, but given the fundamental shift in the political and international landscape, the event and competition itself never went ahead. Despite ongoing attempts by Erlanger in 1940, including discussions with Italian authorities under Mussolini (who, in fact, accepted the festival’s existence, on the basis it would not coincide with the Mostra) the extent and extremity of the situation in Europe and declaration by Germany of war on France and England meant that the event was postponed ad infinitum.
It took until 1946 for the International Film Festival to launch officially and take place, on the 20th September, 9 years after Erlanger’s conceptualisation. As he is quoted to have described this occasion:
“The world threw itself into this first festival in a state of near-intoxication, under a sun that shone constantly until mid-October.”
This time, 19 countries were featured in the competition, opened in the gardens of the Grand Hôtel with the American singer Grace Moore, with fireworks, torch-lit parades and displays, doves released, flower battles, air displays… the official Festival de Cannes website details an array of near-fantastical happenings throughout this first actual event, and names numerous iconic individuals both in and surrounding the industry whom elevated its acclaim. For example, attendances from the likes of Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, Walt Disney and Pablo Picasso over the following years created an elite celebrity zeitgeist that of course still surrounds the festival today.
While 1946 remains the date from which the festival is marked, and anniversaries are calculated, there continued to be a number of tumultuous cancellations, postponements, and complexities regarding political and international relations. The festival remained true to its founding identity, as this extract from its regulations in 1948 details:
“The Festival’s aim is to encourage the development of cinematographic art in all its forms, and create and foster a spirit of collaboration between all film-producing countries”.
By 1972, however, as an association under the 1901 Law, managed by a Board of Directors, the Festival de Cannes was recognised as a public service in France.
This year, the 76th season, is in motion. Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s General Delegate since 2007, notes that:
‘(I)n order to achieve this level of longevity, the Festival de Cannes has remained faithful to its founding purpose: to draw attention to and raise the profile of films, with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.’
‘The Official Selection serves to highlight the diversity of cinematic creation through its different sections, each of which has its own distinct identity…’.
Nowadays, ‘Competition’ is no longer the sole aspect of films and industry individuals being features at the Festival. Debut screenings, ‘out of competition’ films, ‘special’ screenings and ‘midnight’ screenings all make up the series of events over 15 days.
Asked about how the festival maintains its international dimension, Frémaux says:
“Every year, the Festival invites artists from all over the world to give their own interpretation of the world of today and tomorrow. In 2019, the 57 films in the Official Selection were produced by 35 different countries… 170 countries were represented in 2022…
The festival embodies something vital on a global scale, and we’re working to harness this image for the benefit of the selected works by helping to support filmmakers and their films around the world, in places where they aren’t given the same platform as in France….
The smallest actions undertaken in Cannes can turn into major turning points further down the line…”
(All extracted from The Festival Today: Interview with Thierry Frémaux, via https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/the-festival/the-festival-today/)
This year’s Festival de Cannes runs until Saturday 27th May. You can discover more about the ongoing events of this year’s festival, award nominees and winners, here: https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/