Ten Years Ago, the Cannes Film Festival Became About More Than Just Cinema

It's not every year at Cannes that Quentin Tarantino is the jury head or Michael Moore walks away with the Palme D'Or, but that's not the only thing that makes the now ten-year-old festival edition interesting.

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The Cannes Film Festival begins its 67th edition today in France with the requisite reports of critical drubbings and red carpet bombshells, but it's unlikely the featured films will make the kind of waves the 2004 edition did. Of course, it's not every year at Cannes that Quentin Tarantino is the jury head or Michael Moore walks away with the Palme D'Or, but that's not the only thing that makes the now ten-year-old festival edition interesting.

Still, that's the thing to start with. There was no film more searing and yet ultimately disposable than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a polemical critique of the Bush administration and the War in Iraq that debuted to a 20-minute standing ovation. Cannes was getting more press attention than usual for the simple fact that Moore's new documentary would be in competition there; its Palme win was its first step to huge box office success ($222 million worldwide) and prompted an unsurprising volley of criticism from right-wing pundits, who said of course the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of Cannes would reward Moore.

But the 2004 jury was, in fact, barely French at all. Tarantino headed the jury (ten years after winning his own Palme D'Or for Pulp Fiction) which included French actress Emmanuelle Beart and Belgian comedian Benoit Poelvoorde, but also the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, noted photographer Jerry Schatzberg, and Vietnamese director Tsui Hark. Best of all, there were Kathleen Turner and Tilda Swinton. All Cannes juries are eclectic, but still, that is absolutely a group I'd love to watch movies with for a couple weeks, even if Tarantino probably pestered Turner with questions about Brian de Palma the whole time.

"What have you done?" Moore joked as he accepted the award. He later said that Tarantino had leaned in and told him the jury had made a decision based on filmmaking, not politics, and it's honestly easy to believe him. Tarantino has never struck me as a particularly politically-minded fellow, but he is a director who always seeks to make his point as powerfully and brazenly as possible. Fahrenheit 9/11 feels like a dusty relic if you watch it now, but it's a film looking to land as powerful a punch as it can, and especially with the right audience, it's easy to get swept up in it.

Still, Cannes in 2004 had a lot more going for it than just Michael Moore. The festival's runner-up is usually the Grand Prix winner, and here it was Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy, a Tarantino-esque ballad of violence and revenge. Its victory and established cult status remains a benchmark moment for pulpy Korean cinema, which had been on the map for a few years at that point but really started to get international attention after this. And Oldboy was really the perfect film to do it, stacked with memorable, purely visual sequences that anyone would remember (eating the live octopus, taking on dozens of assailants with a hammer) but feeling like an utterly unique cinematic moment all the same.

The other prize-winners were less memorable, except for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a brilliant, heady psychological drama that made the young Thai director's name on the festival circuit (his next film at Cannes, 2010's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, won the Palme). Maggie Cheung won Best Actress for Clean, a solid rehab drama directed by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas, but it came off a little like a make-up award for her truly definitive work in In the Mood for Love four years earlier (she lost then to Bjork for Dancer in the Dark).

Cheung's win also came in the same year that Wong Kar-Wai's much-anticipated follow-up to In the Mood for Love, the dreamy sci-fi epic 2046, debuted to tepid reviews. 2046 is a gorgeous, ambitious mess of a film that follows Tony Leung's protagonist from In the Mood for Love through subsequent romantic misadventures and pairs it with a futuristic story of a train passenger falling in love with an android in the future. Wong worked on the film literally until the day of its premiere—the reels arrived straight from the lab and the screening was delayed—and then re-edited it after it won no prizes at Cannes. It could not have had a more sympathetic grand juror than Tarantino, who was such a fan of the director that he distributed Wong's earlier films in America under his own "Rolling Thunder" label.

The weirdest thing about the Cannes 2004 lineup was America's presence outside of Michael Moore. There was The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (a British co-production), a plodding TV movie that existed only to win Geoffrey Rush every mini-series acting award going. There was the Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers, a bizarre remake that's pretty much considered the nadir of their career (they bounced back after a three-year break with the Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men). And there was Shrek 2.

Shrek had been a huge deal with critics and had beaten Monsters Inc. to the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar. Before it became a bloated franchise that DreamWorks over-marketed into the ground, Shrek was hailed as a fresh and funny satire of the Disney princess movie. Shrek 2's inclusion in competition at Cannes is maybe a little surprising, but this was a sequel people were genuinely anticipating (it ended up making a staggering amount of money, too). And it's really worth remembering that Shrek 2 is one of the most horrendous, laugh-free cash grabs ever filmed. That it was followed by two even worse sequels is nothing short of a reverse miracle.

After the headline-grabbing year, Cannes followed up in 2005 with a much more sedate lineup (the Belgian Dardennes brothers won their second Palme for L'Enfant, which is admittedly a better film than anything that screened in 2004) and a jury chaired by Serbian director Emir Kusturica. This year's festival will probably get the most attention on its first day, as Nicole Kidman's Oscar chances are prematurely buried for Grace of Monaco. That's just fine, and that's as it should be at the Croisette. But once in a while it's fun to see the festival become more than just a cinephiliac phenomenon.

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