The Cannes Film Festival, which concludes today, has long held an unusual reputation for its lengthy standing ovations. The tradition—which perhaps reached an apotheosis when Pan’s Labyrinth received 22 minutes of applause in 2006—has at times attracted mockery. Although standing ovations are common responses to great art, a prolonged ceremony can get awkward—just watch the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood team grimace its way through seven minutes of clapping in 2019. Other times they turn performative: This year, Adam Driver lit a cigarette as the camera panned over to him during Annette’s five minutes of acclaim.
The practice doesn’t merely infuse the Croisette, the scenic boulevard where Cannes takes place, with extra pomp and glamour. Audiences might genuinely share appreciation for a film. For the industry, the length of applause serves as a proxy for how potentially buzzy a title might be. And every year—but particularly this one—the cheers are a reminder of the pleasures of slowing down and appreciating art. Yet, as in the world of theater, the standing ovation can come to feel like an obligation. When such effusive displays greet every film, what is the audience truly expressing? Kellie Lail, a critic and Cannes attendee who caught the five-minute ovation for Stillwater, voiced a common criticism: “The fact that it is not such a given at other festivals makes me wonder if the standing ovations received in other places are more honest audience reactions.”
When I spoke with Cristina Bicchieri, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies social norms, over the phone—for 15 minutes, the amount of time a Cannes audience applauded Capernaum in 2018—she told me the gesture can be traced to an ancient Roman celebration, “a sign of respect” for generals returning from campaigns. At a film festival, and at the old-fashioned Cannes specifically, a similar reverence is at play.
In fact, Cannes’ remarkably long ovations offer excellent models for the way humans subconsciously influence one another. They illustrate how we initiate group actions, signal approval, and either reciprocate those signals or reject them. “It’s fun to kind of watch them as a sociological exercise,” Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied standing ovations as a model of social behavior, told me. During our chat—of 20 minutes, roughly the amount of time a Cannes audience applauded Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004—Page suggested that the audience inside a theater at the film festival is a microcosm of a social network. “There is a real asymmetry to who has influence,” he explained.
At the head of the social hierarchy are the film’s cast and crew, who are likely to be high-profile names, seated in a position that is visible (perhaps on-screen) to the rest of the audience. That audience is usually made up of movie buffs inclined to show respect, even if they found the film lacking. Because ovations typically begin at the front of the audience, those who could afford the best seats—perhaps friends of the film’s team, or the wealthiest attendees—prompt the rest of the audience to leap to their feet. Those with no such clout are helpless to follow. Even if they decide not to engage, they’re in no position to influence anyone else.
The pageantry of Cannes, then, has a specific effect: Because it emphasizes the status difference among attendees, the audience members in the back rows are more likely to follow the crowd’s opinion. “If people are really secure in their own evaluations, then they’re not going to stand,” Page said. “But if you’re not sure, and you think the other people [around you] are smarter than you, then you are going to stand … I imagine Cannes to be a place [where if I ask myself,] ‘How confident am I, sitting near movie stars and directors?’ The answer is ‘Not very.’”
Nicholas Christakis, the director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, explained in our conversation—which lasted 12 minutes, about the amount of time a Cannes audience applauded The Artist in 2011—that Cannes demonstrated “prestige hierarchy,” a distinctly human phenomenon in which we seek connection more than we seek survival. In a social setting such as a film festival, where auteurs and A-listers sit among the audience, attendees have the chance to imagine—or even make—a social connection with celebrities. “It’s about coming closer to animals that can confer a benefit,” he said. “This is an extreme illustration of our unavoidable desire to be social animals.” Anna Smith, the host of the podcast Girls on Film, who went to Cannes this year, told me: “If you’re standing near the cast and crew, and you loved the film, it can be exhilarating.”
So if you find yourself facing a wall of apparently uninterruptible applause, how can you, well, interrupt it without ostracizing yourself and losing all social status? Cannes attendees told me it’s possible to stray from the tribe and stop clapping, or to slip away before the end of the screening. Often, though, the filmmakers have to take the mic and signal for the applause to end so they can deliver a speech. This, Bicchieri explained, is the best way for such lengthy plaudits to conclude anyway, because most audiences will take cues from the most important figures in the room. “They seek permission to stop, and then little by little you can have a bandwagon effect,” she said. It’s simply human to seek approval—even when it comes to methods of expressing approval. “The fact is,” Bicchieri said, “you don’t want to be the one who stops.”