Perspective: Has Cannes’ Palme d’Or lost some of its sheen? A search for relevance

“Taxi Driver” star Robert De Niro at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The Cannes Film Festival is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. That makes the gathering, which kicked off Wednesday night in this seaside town, sound really old. And in a sense it is. But some of those really old movies exert a powerful pull on modern film culture.

Nowhere is that felt more than with Cannes’ top prize, alternately called the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film over the last seven decades.

It’s a cliche that taking the top Cannes prize is like winning an Olympic gold medal, but it’s also true. To look back at the winners is to take a tour through some of the most significant movies in history — far more than the Oscars, which always surprises you with what great movies didn’t win.

For a six-year spell beginning in 1949, for instance, the top Cannes prize went to movies like “The Third Man,” “The Wages of Fear” and “Marty” — all great films that still cast a long shadow today.


Another period of half a dozen years, this time in the 1970s, saw the honor going to works like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now,” establishing both directors as formidable voices of 1970s cinema — and setting a template that half the high-quality directors in Hollywood (and plenty of directors of lesser quality) still cite as a model in 2017.

“sex, lies and videotape’s” Steven Soderbergh and Jane Fonda at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
"sex, lies and videotape's" Steven Soderbergh and Jane Fonda at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
(AFP / Getty Images)

You don’t even have to go that far back. Over a six-year period beginning in 1989, the winners included “sex, lies & videotape,” “Barton Fink” and “Pulp Fiction.” All come from filmmakers very much emulated today. (All come from filmmakers still very much making movies today.)

This doesn’t feel as true for the winners from recent years. It’s not that there aren’t bold or visionary works (though it’s maybe slightly that). It’s really that the films don’t seem to pack the same cultural punch.


In the last 10 years one of the most notable winners is Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012), a piece of unsparing honesty about aging. A very strong film, but does it have the sheen of some of these past winners? At least that’s a film that many casual films fans have heard of.

Perhaps I’m guilty of overly revering the past. Maybe 25 years from now people will talk about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) and “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) with the same admiration we now talk about “Taxi Driver” and “The Third Man.” But it’s hard to avoid the fact that the recent winners just don’t feel as far-reaching in their significance.

So are directors not making these ground-breakers or are juries and the festival not finding them? Or are we, as a culture, just too jaded and have seen it all?

The answer may be a hodgepodge of several factors.

Part of this might indeed be the nature of juries. Where Cannes’ competition jury used to include authors, critics and others outside the film business, it now focuses pretty much exclusively on filmmaking professionals — a lot of actors, for example. That can narrow the world view and the choices. (The cliché, again with some truth, is that modern film juries don’t pick the best movie, they pick the one they can all agree on.)

PHOTOS: Cannes Film Festival 2017 »

Another factor is that the movies themselves are not as populist as they once were. The split between the art house and the commercial is a relatively recent phenomenon in much of global cinema, but it has ensured that many of the winners don’t make a mark outside of a confined sandbox.


(A subset of this phenomenon is that juries in recent years are giving the Palme to fewer English-language movies, which by definition has a lower cultural impact, at least in places like the U.S. and Britain, even as they do nicely open up the prizes beyond the usual suspects.)

Since the 21st century began, a few Palme winners did leave a mark in the English-language cinema world — particularly “The Pianist” (2002) and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But more typical are winners like “The Child,” from the Dardenne brothers (2005) and the Romanian New Wave touchstone “4 Months, Three Weeks and 2 Days” (2006) — each influential, but in a rather small sphere.

(Arguably the best-known winner of the last decade is Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011), and that’s as hard-core art house as you can get.)

Cannes director Thierry Fremaux has subtly tried to combat this by selecting movies for competition that have a strong genre streak — witness “Drive” (2011) or “Oldboy” (2004). Both are populist and influential. Both, notably, did not win the Palme.

Still, prize trends come in waves. Haneke is back at the festival this year with “Happy End,” a movie that could make a splash and solidify him as a Palme voice for the ages. (He’s going for a record third win.) And with “The Beguiled,” the Coppola spirit is here too — that is, Sofia Coppola, of course, Francis’ daughter and a great director in her own right thanks to movies like “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere.” With her new film, she’s offering her surely brazen take on already brazen material.

It’s possible we’ll also see world-shaking new works from other fresh voices in competition. Provocative genre-minded directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” high on many lists), Bong Joon-ho (“Okja”) and the Safdie brothers (“Good Time”) all could win and help set cinema on a new course.

Heck, the Cannes notable may not even come with Palme-eligible films, as Jane Campion and David Lynch premiere TV shows (“Top Of the Lake” and “Twin Peaks”) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu introduces a VR-art installation.

From this modern vantage point, it can certainly feel like a golden age existed in some other time. But then, no one thought the ’70s cinema movement would happen until it did.


See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


Tight security, an airbrushing scandal and high movie anticipation at the 70th Cannes Film Festival

The tiff that may have led Cannes to choose Marion Cotillard’s ‘Ghosts’ to open the festival

Get our weekly Indie Focus newsletter