If there is one thing that the Internet loves (aside from cat pictures and moral outrage) it is disagreeing with awards. Whenever an award is announced, you can guarantee that people will be on the internet within minutes registering their disgust and incredulity: ‘How could they give to prize to X’ they scream, ‘when Y was clearly the better novel/film/sex toy/advertisement for motor oil!’ Compared to other awards, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or tends to come in for something of an easy ride as critics generally choose to celebrate the winners rather than grump about the losers. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, even when the Cannes jury gets it wrong it generally does so for reasons that are quite interesting. For example, when the 2004 Jury chaired by Quentin Tarantino looked past such fantastic films as Olivier Assayas’s Clean, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa, Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Conseguenze dell’Amore, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud Pralad in order to award the Palme to Michael Moore’s baggy, manipulative and self-indulgent political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, people generally saw it as an entirely justifiable decision to channel the media interest generated by Cannes into an assault on the Bush regime and its dubious foreign policy.
Secondly, despite the medium of film being grotesquely over-represented in mainstream media, Cannes is really the only time when entertainment reporters focus their attentions solely on the world of art house film. Only too aware that this might be the only chance they get to push these films at a mainstream audience, film critics generally choose to downplay controversy and negativity in favour of celebrating the positive and so raising the mainstream profile of art house film.
Thirdly, unlike most awards that are given out retroactively to works released within a particular timeframe, the Palme d’Or is only awarded to films that are officially in competition at Cannes. What makes the competition so peculiar is that many of the films that are in competition at Cannes also premier at Cannes meaning that unless you happen to be in Cannes during the festival, chances are that you will not get to see any of the competing films until they are picked up for distribution. This quirk of administration means that anyone not at Cannes is effectively excluded from the conversation. Furthermore, the Cannes film festival only lasts about ten days meaning that most critics struggle to see all of the films in competition. Taken together, these two sets of considerations ensure that, come the end of the Cannes festival and the announcement of the Palme d’Or winner, almost nobody in the world has seen enough of the shortlist to be able to criticise the jury’s selection in any meaningful way.
These three barriers to criticism effectively ensure that all press coverage devoted to the Palme d’Or is either a series of uplifting platitudes about the wonders of art house film or objective and dispassionate reportage that a group of people watched a group of films and determined one film in particular to be better than the others. By and large, this media love-in works quite well as the increased visibility generated by Cannes and the Palme d’Or not only creates an international market for decidedly non-commercial films, it also provides producers with an opportunity to find people to distribute their films and thereby satisfy said international market. Unfortunately, it is precisely because Cannes plays this key role in determining which films achieve wider cinematic distribution that its selections must be scrutinised and its juries held to account.