The Most Controversial Moments at the Cannes Film Festival


France’s Cannes Film Festival has seen its share of controversies since it started in 1946. Blame the Riviera sun or the filmmaking iconoclasts that gather on the red carpet each year, but various high jinks and bizarre publicity stunts have often dominated the festivities. Bold action isn’t always required to shake things up, however. Often times it’s just the movies themselves that cause a scene with audiences and the Cannes jury. With the current 66th annual festival underway, we wanted to take a look at ten of Cannes most controversial moments.

Lars and Hitler

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? While it’s no longer shocking to see Lars von Trier’s name pop up when controversies abound, the polarizing Danish director had the biggest foot-in-mouth moment during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Von Trier made an uncomfortable comment about “sympathizing” with Hitler during a press conference with Kirsten Dunst to promote Melancholia:

“I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I think I understand the man.”

A few awkward glances and nervous murmurs from the crowd later, Von Trier found himself banned from the festival, despite an official apology (several, actually). He was pursued by the French authorities for criminal charges, which were later dropped. Von Trier vowed to never make a public statement again and is absent at this year’s Cannes. Festival officials insist the filmmaker simply missed the deadline to submit his upcoming Nymphomaniac for consideration and that he’s not actually banned from the fest.

Several years before that, Von Trier’s Antichrist caused a stir amongst Cannes audiences, some who reportedly fainted from shock. The ecumenical jury called it “misogynist.”

Hitler strikes

Speaking of Hitler, ahem, the Nazi dictator shut down the inaugural festival scheduled for September 1, 1939 — the day his troops invaded Poland, sparking World War II. William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the only film that managed to screen before it was closed for the next seven years.

B-movie breasts

B-movie actress Simone Silva was born for the cameras and in her search for the next publicity stunt, she headed to Cannes in 1954. She was named “Miss Festival,” but angered Cannes organizers when she took off her top for a series of photos with actor Robert Mitchum on the beach. She was asked to leave.

La Dolce no-no

La Dolce Vita won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1960 festival, but the film was condemned by the Catholic Church for its sketchy portrayal of Rome and the loose morals of its residents. The church classified the film as unsuitable and a call for its removal from theaters overwhelmed the festivities in France. In the end, the buzz only served to elevate its success, but the film was banned for decades in several countries.

The Spanish inquisition

“I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am,” director Luis Buñuel said in regards to the controversy over his 1961 film Viridiana at the festival that year. Similar to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Buñuel’s story about a young nun and her troubled uncle was considered detestable by the Catholic Church, but the Spanish government also took issue with the movie. Although Spanish authorities had approved of the script, they didn’t see the finished work until Cannes and were horrified by the scenes of rape. Spain’s Francisco Franco tried to withdraw the movie from the festival, but failed. It won the Palme d’Or that year, but was banned in Spain until 1977 after Franco’s death.

New Wave revolt

The student protests in France dominated the 1968 festival, which ended early. New Wave directing icons François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard led a strike in solidarity with the country’s workers and students. Just before Carlos Saura’s Spanish drama Peppermint Frappé was set to screen, Truffaut, Godard, and others took action by hanging from the curtains in the theater to stop the show. Saura’s leading lady Geraldine Chaplin joined them in the protest, but Godard mistook her enthusiasm for opposition and punched her in the face.

Spike Lee and a Louisville Slugger

Spike Lee’s list of people he has a beef with is quite long, and one name recalls a tense moment at Cannes in 1989. Acclaimed director Wim Wenders was serving as the jury president at the time. The German filmmaker shared that he didn’t award Lee’s film Do the Right Thing the Golden Palm, because he felt Lee’s character Mookie (portrayed by the Malcolm X director) was unheroic. Lee was outraged. “Wim Wenders had better watch out ’cause I’m waiting for his ass. Somewhere deep in my closet I have a Louisville Slugger bat with Wenders’ name on it,” he spewed.

Dead pigeons

Michael Winterbottom’s ode to Manchester’s music scene and Factory Records, 24 Hour Party People, was the center of a grotesque publicity stunt when several cast members threw stuffed, dead pigeons at each other on a beach at Cannes in 2001 (recalling a scene in the film). They were booted from the area, but that didn’t dissuade audiences from enjoying the movie. Nobody tell Mike Tyson.

Brown Bunny flop

What’s up Cannes? What do you have against long, wordless scenes of people driving and unsimulated oral sex with Chloë Sevigny? Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny divided audiences at the festival in 2003, with film critic extraordinaire Robert Ebert calling it “the worst film in the history of the festival.” A war of words broke out between the men, and Gallo sulked back home only to edit out a quarter of his hazy, cross-country indie. A later screening at the Toronto International Film Festival won Gallo the positive reviews he was hoping for, but his Cannes experience made an indelible mark.

The War on Moore and Tarantino

Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 , a critical look at the War on Terror, won him the honorable Palme d’Or from then jury president Quentin Tarantino. The film received a minutes-long standing ovation and became one of the only documentaries in cinema to win the Golden Palm, but critics derided the decision calling it a political maneuver. Even Cannes director Gilles Jacob felt the film won for the wrong reasons, but Tarantino has continued to defend his decision to this day.

Female trouble

This year’s festival lineup features one female director (out of 19) competing for the coveted Palme d’Or — Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s Un château en Italie (A Castle in Italy) — which we guess is a step up from last year when there were no women in the running. The 2012 shortlist was consisted of 22 men. A bitter letter published in Le Monde last year, signed by a group of female filmmakers, condemned the decision: “Never let the girls think they can one day have the presumptuousness to make movies or to climb those famous Festival Palace steps, except when attached to the arm of a prince charming.” The newest study on women in Hollywood from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reveals women are still significantly underrepresented in movie speaking roles (out of 4,475 speaking characters, only 28.4% were women) and behind the camera. Out of 1,228 directors, producers, and writers who worked on the top 100 grossing films last year, only a dismal 16.7% were women.