Yesterday the Twittersphere (a place where topics are only discussed in rational proportions) was abuzz with the news that Terrence Malick’s long-awaited magnum opus Tree of Life was booed at its Cannes premiere. While the reaction to Malick’s latest will no doubt continue to be at least as divisive and polarized as his previous work has been, for many Malick fans the news of the boos only perpetuated more interest in the film, and for many Malick non-fans the boos signaled an affirmation of what they’ve long-seen as lacking in his work. (Just to clarify, there was also reported applause, counter-applause, and counter-booing at the screening.)
Booing at Cannes has a long history, and can even be considered a tradition. It seems that every year some title is booed, and such a event often only creates more buzz around the film. There’s no formula for what happens to a booed film at Cannes: sometimes history proves that the booed film was ahead of its time, sometimes booing either precedes negative critical reactions that follow or reflect the film’s divisiveness during its commercial release. Booed films often win awards. If there is one aspect connecting almost all booed films at Cannes, it’s that the films are challenging. I mean challenging as a descriptor that gives no indication of quality (much like I consider the term “slow”), but films that receive boos at the festival challenge their audiences or the parameters of the medium in one way or another, for better or for worse, whether or not this challenge is justified by what the film actually accomplishes. Other than this, Cannes’s booed films have a variety of different trajectories after their publicized premieres.
Here is a selected history of six films booed at the festival.
So the reception of Lars von Trier’s graphic rumination on gender and original sin wasn’t exclusively a “boo,” but one could never say it was uniformly positive, or uniform at all. Four people reportedly fainted during the premiere screening, and the first credit that shows up after the film’s conclusion – a dedication to the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky – drew derisive laughter from its audience followed by a mixture of loud boos, gasps, and applause.
After the press conference in which von Trier declared himself the world’s greatest living filmmaker, Antichrist’s reception immediately became the stuff of Cannes legend because of both the film itself and von Trier’s aggressive personality. Perhaps as an appropriate summation of the film’s divided reception as well as the competing interpretations of its Biblical gender politics, Antichrist received an award for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as well as an “anti-award” for its alleged misogyny. I later caught a screening of Antichrist at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, where the film seemed to have found its home with a far more receptive and respectful (though, in some respects, no less noisy) audience.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Sofia Coppola’s first film after her critical darling Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette was reviled at Cannes. An unusual approach to a historical subject especially well known in France, the film eschewed any trappings of representing history with accuracy and fidelity in favor of a heavily stylized, deliberately anachronistic approach complete with a hip 80s/00s hybrid soundtrack, English and American actors speaking in their contemporary and natural accents, and no political context whatsoever.
The film, understandably, did not sit well with critics upon its premiere at the fest, and many French critics felt like their history was being tampered with by a foreigner. Coppola’s seemingly inconsequential plot-thin style still motivates polarized camps of supporters and detractors, with Marie Antoinette remaining her most divisive – and, arguably, her most misunderstood – film.
The Brown Bunny (2003)
Vincent Gallo’s directorial follow-up to Buffalo ’66 (1998) met some of the harshest reactions in the modern history of the festival. Hundreds walked out, and the film received deafening boos and catcalls, specifically in reaction to its final scene depicting an unsimulated act of fellatio between Gallo and Chloe Sevigny. Gallo and Roger Ebert later engaged in a much-publicized battle of wits. Ebert called it the worst film in the history of the festival, and Gallo responded by saying that Ebert has “the physique of a slave trader” (what this has to do with the film itself is beyond me). This went on. Gallo re-edited the film after the notoriously disastrous Cannes premiere and this new version got a positive review from Ebert as well as from many other critics. The Brown Bunny, in an interesting reversal of this original screening, ended up on the year’s top ten list in the France-based cinema journal Les Cahiers du Cinema.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
In 1990, David Lynch won the Palme d’Or for his darkly comic road trip movie Wild at Heart. Two years and one beloved-but-cancelled cult TV show later, Lynch premiered a feature-length film version of Twin Peaks that functioned as a prequel to the story of the TV series, focusing on the death of Laura Palmer that was the series’ central mystery. The film was booed at Cannes and this reaction predicted a mostly negative critical response, with many critics agreeing that the film served too narrow of an audience devoted to the television show and that Lynch’s abstruse style had become tired and meaningless.
However, Fire Walk With Me became particularly successful in Japan where female audiences identified with the plight of its repressed protagonist. A five-hour DVD release of the original cut of the film has been in and out of production for quite some time.
The Voice of the Moon (1990)
Thirty years after Federico Fellini came home with the Palme d’Or for his generation-defining, pervasively influential film La Dolce Vita, he released The Voice of the Moon, which would become his final film. His The Voice of the Moon is similar to much of the auteur’s late-career work in its episodic, meandering narrative style in which his characters explore subjects nostalgically tied (though with Fellini it’s always a complicated, not-always-romantic nostalgia) to the director’s childhood including Catholicism, rock music, and fascism.
The film, which starred Roberto Benigni, was booed at Cannes and denounced for being boring, though it did gain praise in some European journals and was moderately successful in its home country of Italy. However, nobody is completely free from the judgment of Cannes audiences, not even somebody as respected as Fellini.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s breakthrough work is probably the most notorious Cannes booing in the festival’s history, primarily because the film has since been placed in a pantheon amongst the best of all time. Antonioni’s minimal, existentialist approach has been greatly influential in the fifty years since its release, but for Cannes audiences at the time it seemed quite shocking and frustrating.
Not that Antonioni’s work has since grown into material accessible to everyone, but L’Avventura is probably the clearest example of a misunderstood masterpiece’s reclamation of its important place through the benefit of time. L’Avventura’s reception proved that classics aren’t always understood as such the first time you see them, which is why the film wasn’t considered a contender for a major award (the Jury Prize, aka Third Place – La Dolce Vita won the Palme d’Or) until after its second screening.
This, of course, is only the surface of a history of films booed at Cannes. In 2006 alone, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain were booed along with Marie Antoinette. Von Trier was booed eleven years before Antichrist with his Dogme 95 film The Idiots. Cannes audiences are known to be a noisy bunch, and, by evidence of their rather extreme reactions to films like Antichrist, The Brown Bunny, and countless others, are also rather conservative considering Cannes’ reputation for exhibiting supposedly groundbreaking and unconventional arthouse cinema. Cannes is a place where the polarization of polarizing filmmakers is manifested clearly, and that’s probably what best connects these examples: not that any or all of them were received as uniformly bad or good, but that they were made by filmmakers whose work continually divides audiences.
Most importantly, these boos should be remembered as an initial reaction, a collective reaction, and a communal reaction in a specific space. These boos take place immediately after an audience has seen a film – thus, well before they have allowed a challenging film to sink in long enough to consider its meaning or its worth. Cannes boos can be knee-jerk, conformist, visceral, and (only occasionally) worth note. Boos at Cannes can mean many things, but rarely do they mean anything definitive. They are often the beginning of a long story of a film’s release, not its end.