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What makes a Palme d'Or winner?


When it comes to filmmaking, there is perhaps no greater honour than the coveted Palme d’Or. The highest prize awarded at the annual Cannes Film Festival was introduced in 1955 and has since become synonymous with cinematic excellence. But what makes a Palme d’Or winner, and can 60 years of prize-winning cinema give us an insight into which of this year’s nominees are in with a fighting chance?

The first Palme d’Or in the history of the Cannes Film Festival was awarded to Delbert Mann for his film Marty in 1955. Strangely, the festival organisers then decided to temporarily resume the Gran Prix award between 1964 and 1974, which had been the top prize prior to 1955. After being reintroduced in 1975, the Palme d’Or became the symbol of the festival and was awarded each and every year to the director of the Best Feature Film of the competition.

The Palme d’Or is awarded to those who have distinguished themselves as masters of their craft. Speaking about the legacy of the award, Thierry Frémaux said: “When a Palme d’Or is awarded to a great master, as was the case for Malick, Haneke or Polanski, it is amazing because one has the feeling that the Cannes awards keep step with history. I hope that it will always be this grail that makes filmmakers dizzy with desire.”

None of this is to say that the Palme d’Or has always been given to the right person. Year after year, film fans decry the judging panel’s choice. Indeed, the list of past winners is littered with anomalies and unwise decisions. Many still can’t understand how David Lynch’s Wild At Heart won over Jean-Luc Godard’s latter-day masterpiece Nouvelle Vague, for example. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Martin Scorsese took home the award for Taxi Driver, Federico Fellini for La Dolce Vita and Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now. Nobody would argue with those choices now, would they?

Perhaps it’s foolhardy to suggest that there is a winning formula for the Palme d’Or at all. In its near 70-year lifespan, the award has remoulded its values countless times, keeping, as Frémaux said, in “step with history.” Perhaps, then, Palme d’Or-winning films are those which seem to echo the values of the day or predict where those values are heading. But that’s all quite vague. What we really need are cold hard facts. Thankfully, a data study of the Cannes Film Festival was released back in 2015, offering us an insight into the kind of films that tend to win the top prize.

According to the report, which looked at data from 2010 to 2015, 84% of Palme d’Or shortlisted films are dramas. Of those shortlisted, 53% were French. The study also found that British director Ken Loach has been shortlisted 12 times since 1981, but has only one the Palme d’Or once, suggesting that the judging panel have historically valued observational and socially-aware films.

It’s clear that if you’re looking to make a Palme d’Or-winning film, you’re best off sticking to drama. Since the festival began, the genre has defined over 80% of all films shortlisted. In recent years, that percentage has increased, peaking at 93% in 2015. This year’s selection includes films with strong comedic elements (Triangle Of Sadness for example), but all feature drama as one of their three key genres. You’d also do well to be a French filmmaker working with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who’s written ten Palme d’Or-nominated films. Maybe you’d cast Gérard Depardieu as well. He’s appeared in 16 nominated features and has won the Best Actor award once. When it comes to theme, things get a little bit more complex. Generally speaking, films that deal with universal themes such as love (especially love triangles), family, youth, and time tend to stand out.

So which of these year’s nominees looks set to take home the golden palm? Many have suggested that previous Palme d’Or winner Ruben Ostlünd might be in with a chance. While its unheard of for the same director to win the award twice, his deft exploration of the grotesqueness of the affluent in Triangle Of Sadness echoes our concern with the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the hypocrisy of those with enough money to preach about equality without having to fight for it. That being said, the dominant mood seems to be that this year’s winning film will be one half-detached from our present reality. This year’s panel is mainly made of filmmakers, many of whom greatly admire the work of 79-year old director David Cronenberg, whose dystopian vision in Crimes Of The Future has been described as bewildering, disgusting and incredibly ambitious. Of course, as it stands, all is speculative.

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