Booing at something, especially a film, is usually considered rather impolite. However at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s actually fairly common. Almost every year, the credits to some unfortunate film roll to a soundtrack of boos from unhappy festival goers reacting to what has just unfolded on screen. The festival’s screenings have been with boos for decades, even films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’Avventura in 1960, premiere left its leading actress Monica Vitti “crying like a baby”. L’ Avventura hasn’t been the only classic film to be booed at, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) was also booed and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) was greeted by boos when it won the Palme d’Or.
The pratice of booing suggests a passionate commitment to the art form, the French appreciate cinema and consider it an art form first and formost, although cnema is a relatively young art. Booing is not just reserve for cinema, it also occurs in opera and theater. What appears to be the height of rudeness could actually be viewed as a reflection of greatest expectations. Although a large majority of press reports that comeout from Cannes wildly exaggerate the nature of the audience reaction. ‘Tidal waves of boos’, could actually mean one person wanting their opinion be heard, teamed with a few mumblers. However it does make good publicity, with many directors still going on to have success with their films.
Although booing was fairly common throughout the festivals early years, the 70s gave rise to a new brand of “enfant terribles and provocauteurs” (according to Cannes historians Kieron Corliss and Chris Darke as quoted in IndieWire’s article regarding the history of booing). One film in particular received a loud chorus of boos, this was Jean Eustache’s debut feature The Mother and the Whore (1973) which proved too much for Cannes. Things reached boiling point during a heated press conference where an exasperated Eustache called for his grandmother while declaring “[my film] is France.” Three years later, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) garnered boos as Jury President Tennessee Williams granted it top honors amid “the most unpopular list of awards given at the Cannes film festival for many years.”.
Eustache and Scoresese were not the only directors to face boos, during the 1983 ceremony, an 81-year-old Robert Bresson, the revered “patron saint of cinema,” took the stage (with Orson Welles and Andrei Tarkvosky) to cascading boos as he received the Best Director award for “L’Argent” (1983). Despite living for 16 more years, Bresson would not direct another film, perhaps he was put off by the boos. When The Tree of Life aired at Cannes in 2011, it had a mixed reaction, with claps and boos jostling for prime position after the film ended. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or and a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. The film’s director Terrence Malick hasn’t been put off by the boos, and is still continuing to make films.
If booing is a way to express admiration or respect to directors and their films, then it seems to have got lost in translation to some of us, but it certainly creates an interesting viewing experience. Booing may not be your first response after watching a film you enjoyed, but this is Cannes… things work differently here.