Critical Condition

Melissa Anderson on “Booed at Cannes” at BAMcinématek

David Lynch, Wild at Heart, 1990, 35 mm, color, sound, 125 minutes. Perdita Durango and Sailor Ripley (Isabella Rossellini and Nicolas Cage).

BAMCINÉMATEK’S INGENIOUS PROGRAM “Booed at Cannes,” which kicks off a week before the year’s most prestigious cine-orgy commences in the Côte d’Azur and ends three days before it, presents fifteen films, spanning 1953 to 2004, that share a particular badge of ignominy: They were all received hostilely at the festival. Paradoxically, this initial disgrace seems only to have ensured the films’ later placement in the cinema canon; many titles in the BAM lineup, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), have long been regarded as masterworks. But has the true era of the succès de scandale at Cannes ended? Is it a greater insult today if a film isn’t booed?

During my time as a regular festival attendee, from 2005 to 2012, I’d estimate that nearly 70 percent of the titles that screened in Competition—those vying for the Palme d’Or—were booed (or worse). By now, the excessive booing at Cannes, at least at the press screenings, reflects neither a diminishing quality of films selected nor an increase in the lack of decorum (well, not entirely) but something far more banal: tautological ritual. One boos a film at Cannes because one is at Cannes and booing is what happens there. Wanting to participate in this tetchy convention often reveals behavior more masochistic than sadistic: Two years ago, a colleague, rather than leave a film he despised very early on, stayed through all 127 minutes of it just so he could join the chorus of boos at the end. Sometimes, though, the vicious responses are genuine manifestations of near-pathological rage at the filmmaker, as I witnessed in 2009, when Lars von Trier, whose Antichrist had screened the night before to a din of jeers, was booed—at his own press conference.

But perhaps no form of Cannes booing is more aggressive than that used to express displeasure with the choice of Palme d’Or during the closing-night awards ceremony. On rare occasions, heckled directors will return the insult: Infamously, Maurice Pialat had this to say to those who jeered when his Under the Sun of Satan was announced as the festival’s top-prize winner in 1987: “If you don’t like me, I don’t like you, either.” David Lynch, who has the distinction of being the only auteur with two films in the BAM series, simply smiled goofily as the Grand Théâtre Lumière erupted in boos after he mounted the stage to accept the Palme d’Or in 1990 for Wild at Heart—the director’s fifth film and his first to premiere at Cannes. Two years later, Lynch’s next movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, would debut at the festival, receiving no prizes but plenty of hisses.

The latter film, even more maligned by US critics (who by and large despised it for not being exactly like the short-lived Lynch TV show for which it was a prequel) when it opened in August 1992, stands as the title in the BAM showcase that benefits the most from revisiting. Recounting the last week in the life of troubled high-school homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Fire Walk with Me bears many of Lynch’s trademarks: the sinister qualities of small-town life, blonde and brunette protagonists, the porous boundary between dream and waking. But Lynch had never before created—or extended such empathy toward—a heroine as haunting or haunted as teenage Laura, tormented by years of unspeakable abuse. She is the blueprint of abjection and bifurcation for Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn, the fractured lead character in Lynch’s supreme achievement, Mulholland Drive—for which he would be awarded best director at Cannes in 2001.

“Booed at Cannes” runs May 8 through 23 at BAMcinématek.