In just a couple of days, the festival will end with a brand-new golden palm leaf – here, I mean the actual object. Created by seven Chopard jewelers over 40 hours of work, the statue is made of 118 grams of pure gold and contains 167 diamonds. Even Monica Bellucci’s stunning beauty will have trouble competing with the brilliance of the new award.
The Venice Film Festival?
It’s befitting perhaps that an Italian like Bellucci should present the award: after 70 years, the choice harkens back to the festival’s first incarnations. Even though the idea of a French international film festival began germinating during the 1937 world’s fair, the Mostra de Venise, or Venice Film Festival, was the real impetus for the creation of a French rival.
Begun in 1932, the Venice Film Festival was THE annual international rendez-vous for cinematographers who were keen on comparing and sharing their know-how. Major hiccup: in 1937, Hitler discovered not only that no German films were to receive an award, but that Jean Renoir’s anti-war film La Grande Illusion was to win the prize for Best Artistic Ensemble and was nominated for the International Jury Cup.
From cinema to turnips
So in Venice, the festival became political as Hitler and Mussolini decided to take control of the distribution of prizes. Since the idea of a French film festival was already in the works, this blatant corruption spurred the first edition of what would become the Cannes Film Festival. Programmed for September 1-20, 1939, the first festival was canceled when German troops invaded Poland. Well, not canceled so much as postponed: the "second" first festival finally moved forward in 1946, after the war’s end.
My second question – about the relationship between French cinema and the humble turnip – takes us back to Italy. A few weeks ago, David-Nicolas and I were talking about the vocabulary used to describe a bad movie: in English, we say that a movie is a flop, or that it bombs at the box office. And in French? It’s a navet, a turnip.
Next to nothing
Incidentally, I learned many years ago in a French civilization course that a bombe designated a box-office hit in French: the movie "exploded" at the box office and made lots of money. Of course, if I ask an actual French person about this use of the term bombe – which admittedly isn’t a fashionable word at the moment – they shrug and pout, which means they either a) don’t want to admit that they just don’t know that term, or b) that the term doesn’t exist, and they’re being diplomatic about calling me wrong. I’m guessing the answer is b).
Anyway, back to the navet: why is a bad movie a turnip? Depending on who you read, back in the 13th century, the term already designated something that was next to nothing, zero – since turnips were everywhere and cost little, they had almost no value.
Turnip versus nanar
If we jump to the 18th century, we also jump back to Italy: according to Claude Duneton in his book La puce à l’oreille, Parisian students, confronted for the first time with the Roman statue Apollo of the Belvedere – hailed as a model of perfection – mocked the statue’s blandness and its limbs lacking in muscle. They called it the "peeled turnip" because it was white and quite tasteless, at least in their eyes.
Art critics began using the term in the 1850s, and it then extended to plays and finally cinema in the 1950s. The navet shouldn’t be confused however with the French term nanar, which designates a film that is so badly made that it is ridiculous and therefore hilarious. Whereas the turnip is simply bad and boring, the nanar is funny precisely because of its defects: see infamous director Ed Wood’s films.
We’re unlikely to see any turnips at this year’s festival, although I read somewhere that Ismael’s Ghosts got a few laughs during a scene that was supposed to be poignant and moving, which might put it more into the nanar category. What we will see is that new golden palm leaf, which takes its name from the city of Cannes’ motto Praemium palma victori which means "the palm is the prize of the victor." Indeed: consider the "winners" of that other festival in Venice in 1937.
To read more about the history of the Cannes Film Festival in French, click here.
To read the festival’s official selection of 2017, click here.
Palme d’or image courtesy of Chopard; Cannes banner © FDC / Philippe Savoir (Filifox).
Photograph of Apollo of the Belvedere statue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License