Right about now, taking the time difference into consideration, a bevy of beautiful celebrities will be spritzing and primping their last in preparation to walk the red carpet at the Opening Ceremony of the 67th Cannes Film Festival. But while the festival is a byword for glamour in the wider media, underneath the glossy surface is where its real heart beats, in the long queues in pouring rain, in the panic of swimming against the tide in the mercurially mutable traffic flow system on the Croisette, in the flocks of deskless journos sitting cross-legged on the floor riding out caffeine highs and blood sugar crashes in an effort to file on time. This side of Cannes may not be its prettiest but it is where the action is at, and it is all made worthwhile by the quality of the films we’re privileged to enjoy, across all the sections of the festival for the ten days of its duration before the Palme d’Or is announced and we all pack up and go home.
Who the Jane Campion-headed Jury will choose for that particular accolade in 2014 is anyone’s guess (though there are many sites running odds if you fancy a flutter), but to get us all in the mood for a fortnight of news and reviews from the South of France, we thought we’d take a look back through the festival’s archives and choose our favorite recipients of its highest prize through the years. It's important to note, for two periods in the festival’s history that highest prize was not the Palme d’Or but the Grand Prix (confusingly that’s now the runner-up prize) but where that was the case, we’ve simply counted the Grand Prix winner as the de facto Palme and moved on with our lives. Here, then, are our much-wrangled-over 15 picks for the Best Palme d’Or winners of all time; fingers crossed 2014 yields a movie that belongs in this pantheon too.
“Rome Open City” (1945)
A pregnant woman runs desperately toward the truck carrying off her lover, hand outstretched. She is screaming; he is clawing at the guards who hold him back and bellowing her name. And then the shots come. We can still remember the gut-punch effect of the first time we saw Roberto Rossellini’s seminal film and watched Anna Magnani fall in its most famous scene. Watched—or rather, witnessed, because this film feels like one you bear witness to an astonishingly involving tale of crumbling personal and political morality in the riven, exploded Rome of the latter stages of the Second World War. Now a cornerstone of the Neorealist movement, in fact the grittiness of the style was due to the lack of available resources for Rossellini and his crew, but the calloused roughness of its technique only enhances its power, and adds to the legend of the film as a near-miraculous triumph of humanist storytelling over lack of wherewithal. Because what’s most amazing about “Rome: Open City” is, even divorced from its historical context, just how gripping it is as a drama—there’s not an ounce to spare in this cleanly told yet sprawling, multi-character narrative. Really, it’s a peerless example of the peculiar alchemy that can transmute grainy, scratchy images on celluloid (and odds and ends cuttings at that) into something so powerful that it practically winds you. While it may have been awarded the festival’s highest prize (then called the Grand Prix) along with ten other films (this was the first proper ceremony and the rules were weird), “Rome: Open City” is not only the greatest of them, it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest Cannes winners of all time.
“The Third Man” (1949)
During its inaugural year, the roof of the Palais (the aptly-named theatrical palace where all main competition films are shown) is said to have blown off during a storm. But that roof was doomed, storm or no storm, because the year was 1949 and “The Third Man” screened in Competition. As directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, performed by Orson Welles, scored by Anton Karas' zither, and photographed by Robert Krasker, the movie changed the landscape of the film noir genre in just about every major cinematic department. Here we have a picture impervious to age, unless you're talking about its shadowy richness growing all the more sweet with each passing year, like the aroma of a good vintage. Whether it's Harry Lime's cynical smile after an alley cat blows his cover, the setting of worn-out post-war Viennese decadence, or the infamous Ferris wheel ride where Lime tells his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton, brilliant yet still outshone) about dots and cuckoo clocks; the film injects class into its rich tapestry at every turn. We can only imagine what it was like seeing it for the first time at Cannes, with the aftershocks of the Second World War still reverberating in hearts and minds. The festival was an infant in the film world (the title of “Palme d'Or” not even in its fetal stage) so the mouthful of 30 films competing wasn't all that odd, but it makes this winner all the more special. Regardless of year, though, when the right people find the right material at the right time, magic is undeniable and mustn’t be allowed to go unrewarded. As one of the greatest Cannes winners, “The Third Man” is an example for the ages.
“Paris, Texas” (1984)
With old vets John Huston (“Under The Volcano”) and Satyajit Ray (“The Home And The World”) going up against Europe's unhinged Werner Herzog (“Where The Green Ants Dream”) and an admittedly, still tenderfoot Lars Von Trier (“The Element Of Crime”) it may have looked somewhat surprising on paper when Wim Wenders came up on top in 1984 with his “Paris, Texas.” But that's a paper we'd never take seriously. “Paris, Texas” didn't just win, it pulverized; picking up the FIPRESCI prize from the critics and the Ecumenical Jury Prize from the independent wing, along with the Palme. Themes of family, loss, and desertion intermingle in brilliant fashion as they reflect off Roby Muller's vibrant cinematography (the desert hasn't been this pretty since “Lawrence Of Arabia”) and refract from Harry Dean Stanton's vapid gaze towards that place "without language or streets." Wenders directs the story with a kind of clarity and control that makes the pull toward the cinematic sublime near hypnotic, the depth of the multi-layered plot feeling more and more like a feathered bed the closer we get to the finale. And what a finale it is. The scene between Stanton (who is in career-defining mode here), and Nastassja Kinski in the strip-club, two worlds divided by plexiglass, is the kind of golden stuff that only the greatest Palme d'Or winners are made of. This story of how a wandering vagabond reconnects with his estranged family left no tear dry 30 years ago, and will no doubt remind people again why it's such essential canon among deserving Palme d'Or winners when it screens as part of this year's Cannes Classics selection.