The Cannes Film Festival's highest honor, the Palme d'Or, went on Sunday to Michael Haneke for his film The White Ribbon both establishing it as the best movie of the festival and triggering the annual debate among critics and fans over whether the award was a revelation or a gross miscarriage of justice on the part of the Cannes jury. 'Twas ever thus. (See a first review of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.)
Between 1939-1954, Cannes' highest accolade was called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. At the end of the 1954 festival (won by the Japanese movie Gate of Hell), the festival's Board of Directors asked jewelers to submit designs for a palm, in honor of the tree on Cannes' coat of arms. The renowned Lucienne Lazon's design, (a bevelled lower extremity of the stalk forming a heart) in tandem with a pedestal produced by the celebrated artist Sébastien, was greenlit by the board and the Palme d'Or was born. (See photos from the Cannes red carpet.)
The award had an auspicious beginning: the Oscar-winning Marty, starring Ernest Borgnine, took home the first Palme d'Or in 1955 and deserved triumphs following soon after for Black Orpheus and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. But the design of the trophy itself had a less than stellar start; come 1964, the powers that be at the Festival decided that a return to the original prize was necessary due to copyright issues. The Palme was reinstated in 1975 and, with multiple design changes along the way, it has remained the award craved by auteurs worldwide.
The start of the modern era was particularly good for Italian and American cinema: Italian films took home the award four times straight, from 1966 to 1972, and twice again in 1977-78. Italian-American heavyweights Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, 1979) took the glory for the U.S. and even Bob Fosse joined in at the start of the 1980s with All That Jazz. But critics would snipe that truly great films (and directors) were being overlooked: there would be no Cannes love for Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul),Werner Herzog (Every Man for Himself and God Against All, aka The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), Terence Malick (Days of Heaven) or Wim Wenders (Kings of the Road) though it must be acknowledged that Wenders would eventually win in 1984 for Paris, Texas. Meanwhile, films from further afield were practically shut out by the Jury. Despite the Indian film industry's prodigious output, it was nearly impossible to get a Bollywood film screened in competition. Auteurs from elsewhere in Asia, while well-received at the festival, have gone largely Palme-less, with the notable exceptions of Akira Kurusawa (who shared 1980's award with Fosse for his epic Kagemusha) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).
Chen shared his award in 1993 with New Zealander Jane Campion for her film The Piano the only woman to take the top prize in Cannes' 62-year history. Ironically, Campion's 1989 debut, Sweetie, had been unceremoniously heckled at the festival. That said, being booed at Cannes is a rite of passage: last year's festival saw new movies by Charlie Kaufman, Lucrecia Martel and Wim Wenders receiving catcalls. That hasn't stopped both Campion and Lars Von Trier whose latest work, Antichrist, received the biggest critical drubbing of this year's festival from entering their latest films for the Palme this year.
In recent years the Cannes jury has been kinder to American (or, perhaps one could argue, conservative) cinema, having been won over by the likes of sex, lies and videotape, Wild at Heart, Barton Fink (1989-91), Pulp Fiction (1994), Elephant (2003) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). But with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds the only fully American entry in the running Taking Woodstock by Ang Lee is generally considered part-American, part-Taiwanese it was always likely that the Palme d'Or would remain in the hands of world cinema. And so it has proved, via the Austrian Haneke's White Ribbon victory. Cue the debate.