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Ten Cannes Palme d’Or Winners to Watch on Streaming

With the French film festival on hold this year, there’s no better time to revisit some of its past champions

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For the first time in its 73-year history, the Cannes Film Festival has been forced to postpone its proceedings. The postponement is, of course, just one of a thousand ways that the film industry has been put on hold in the face of the spread of the coronavirus, but it is meaningful. No festival carries so much importance in setting the tone for the year in film; in 2019, Parasite took the top prize en route to box office success and Oscar glory, and even if that movie’s across-the-board success was more of an outlier—and the only Palme d’Or plus Best Picture winner since Marty in 1955—the festival’s role as a momentum builder can’t be denied. The impact of Cannes either moving to later in the year or closing shop altogether will be significant. But while we wait to hear when—or if—the festival will happen in 2020, here are 10 former Palme d’Or winners worth seeking out and streaming.

Viridiana (1961)

Streaming on Kanopy

“I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous,” said Luis Buñuel of his slyly sacrilegious fable, “but [the Pope] is a better judge of such things than I am.” The juxtaposition of Viridiana’s success at Cannes and the scandal it caused across the rest of Europe, where it was denounced by the Vatican and banned by in Spain by the Francisco Franco regime hints at the film’s artistic brilliance, as well as the provocation enfolded within. Its story of a young, beautiful novice (Silvia Pinal) who believes (wrongly) that she’s been raped—and thus spoiled for all time—manifests a wicked satire of immaculate conception and misapplied piety, culminating in a hilarious sequence parodying the Last Supper with a group of degenerate beggars standing in for Jesus and his apostles. Nobody knew how to stick it to the Catholic Church like Buñuel, and yet it’s reductive to simply describe Viridiana as a fuck-you to the faithful—it’s an attack on authority and aristrocracy in all forms that simultaneously refuses to indulge in salt-of-the-earth sentimentality about those living lower down on the ladder. Viridiana’s unblinking vision of a world without true innocence isn’t misanthropic, but powerfully, unapologetically humane—a black comedy without pity or judgment.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Streaming on Kanopy

In the same year that Julie Andrews descended from the skies over London riding a parasol, the French director Jacques Demy immortalized rainy-day chic while also making a star out of the 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve. To call The Umbrellas of Cherbourg light entertainment is completely apt considering its spry, weightless tone—its slender story line about a young girl falling in and out of love soars on Michel Legrand’s sweet score—and yet that description doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of its themes about economic anxiety (the object of Deneuve’s affection is a humble mechanic) or the lurking offscreen presence of the Algerian War. Like all of the greatest musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg transforms reality into Utopia, all smooth choreography and color-coordinated costumes, without letting us forget its artifice. Even as he was paying tribute to old Hollywood musicals, Demy was creating a genre template for self-reflexive directors from Bob Fosse to Spike Jonze (whose legendary promo for Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” is an all-out homage). Charm may be in the eye of the beholder, but if you don’t find this movie irresistible, you should get your eyesight checked.

If … (1969)

Streaming on Amazon Prime

The late 1960s were a hotbed of youthful resistance around the world. In 1968, Cannes suspended the festival for the first and only time in its history in solidarity with student protests across the country; later that year in the U.S., demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago brought similar tensions to the surface. And, in 1969, Cannes gave the Palme to a British film trafficking in images of rebelliousness and insurrection: Lindsay Anderson’s epochal If…, which transferred the energy of the era’s reigning U.K. pop stars, from the satanic majesty of the Rolling Stones to the teenage wastoids of The Who. Two years before his role in A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell played Mick Travis, a high-schooler bristling with rage at his teachers and a group of bullying classmates who stoke murderous impulses; what begins as a grimly believable depiction of private-school rituals descends into an outrageous, irresponsibly exhilarating revenge fantasy that may or may not exist outside of Mick’s headspace. (No wonder Stanley Kubrick cast McDowell as Alex DeLarge—his part here is like an extended audition for the ingratiating wickedness he displayed in A Clockwork Orange.) The film’s surrealist influences are clear, and they mark its divergence from the kitchen-sink realism of ’60s British cinema even as Anderson is mining the same deep, artistically rich vein of social and class satire as his more restrained peers. From its title on down, If … is a movie about the power and peril of imagination, and the seductive thrill of wishing that we might externalize our inner lives for all to see and fear.

The Conversation (1974)

Streaming on Amazon Prime

“He’d kill us if he got the chance.” No line better exemplifies the paranoia of ’70s American cinema—the sharp, acute anxiety that was the flip side to the aesthetic muscle-flexing of the New Hollywood—than the mantra at the middle of Francis Ford Coppola’s conspiracy classic. The true meaning of that phrase and whose death it refers to is the central mystery of The Conversation, which takes its general concept from another Palme d’Or winner (1966’s London-set thriller Blow-Up) while fully Americanizing it for the age of Watergate. Its (anti?) hero, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), is a lonely surveillance expert who eavesdrops for profit but ends up hearing (and then seeing) too much. Coming after the dark, sumptuous classicism of The Godfather, The Conversation’s choppy, elliptical style looked almost like the work of a different filmmaker, one willing to take risks with new forms and techniques. And even though Hackman had already won an Oscar for The French Connection, his measured, recessive performance as a passive, socially distanced creep—a guy used to living his life as a fly on the wall—represented a dizzying peak of actorly craft.

Under the Sun of Satan (1987)

Streaming on Kanopy

Accepting his Palme for his anguished masterpiece, Maurice Pialat told the jeering audience, “If you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either.” Like is a hard word to apply to Under the Sun of Satan, a movie that, true to Pialat’s claims, does not make an effort to be likable, focusing on a deeply unhappy protagonist (Gérard Depardieu as a spiritually malnourished priest) and putting him through a series of physical and psychological defilements that anticipate Ethan Hawke’s anguish in First Reformed (a film unmistakably made in Pialat’s debt). There’s a fine line between searing seriousness and po-faced self-parody, and Under the Sun of Satan walks it bravely, turning Depardieu into a vessel for pious pessimism opposite Sandrine Bonnaire as a pregnant young woman introduced murdering her lover—a startlingly carnal presence destined to cross paths with the self-loathing holy man. Pialat’s willingness to go all the way in terms of stark symbolism (including an encounter with the literal devil, probably) is surely what alienated his haters, but it’s also what makes his film so remarkable in its ornery, unrepentant way. Instead of asking us to meet him halfway, Pialat drags us by the neck across unforgiving terrain, past the point of no return.

Barton Fink (1991)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

The rules of the game had to be rewritten after the Coens copped citations at Cannes for Barton Fink; the festival decreed that henceforth the most prizes that could be awarded to a single Competition title was two. Spreading the wealth is well and good, but it’s not like the jury was wrong to think that the Coens’ combination homage-critique of the old Hollywood studio system—depicted as a coastal Moloch swallowing up John Turturro’s idealistic New York playwright—was anything less than a masterpiece. Ingeniously conceived and razor-sharp in its skewering of a herd of sacred literary livestock (including Clifford Odets and William Faulkner), Barton Fink is as dense and complex as the Coens’ work gets. Plus, the irony of the brothers being so extravagantly feted for a movie that’s largely about the ways in which critical acclaim disfigures the artistic process can’t be understated. Cannes has treated the Coens well ever since, proffering major prizes for everything from Fargo to The Ladykillers to Inside Llewyn Davis, but Barton Fink is one for the record books.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

Maybe only a jury led by Clint Eastwood would have gambled on giving European film culture’s highest prize to a collection of lowbrow tropes, but by the end of 1994, the writing was on the wall: Quentin Tarantino’s retro-fetishism was the future of American cinema. The Oscars went with Forrest Gump, but 25 years later it’s clear that Pulp Fiction won the war: Chances are it’s the one movie that everybody reading this list has seen. It’s also worth remembering that at one point, the elongated, tangled narrative threads and pop-cultural annotations long since normalized and pushed to the limits in epics like The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood had an out-of-nowhere appeal. Look past the iconic shots, one-liners, and needle drops (of which there are arguably more than in any American film of the 1990s) and recall that what made Pulp Fiction really detonate with taste-makers was the sheer joy of its storytelling tactics—the way that QT kept finding ways to detour and reroute our expectation of what his characters would say and do next. Think about the way that “The Gold Watch” gradually mutates from Christopher Walken’s long-take monologue about hiding a timepiece in his rectum to Bruce Willis stoically contemplating a samurai sword on a wall in Zed’s pawn shop, and how weirdly logical and poetic that progression feels in the moment and in retrospect—and then thank Clint for kick-starting Pulp Fiction’s momentum at Cannes.

Elephant (2003)

Available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon Prime

Few American filmmakers have reinvented themselves as consistently or successfully as Gus Van Sant, whose shape-shifting skill set over an almost 40-year career has kept viewers impressed and guessing. After the mainstream success of Good Will Hunting—and the equally high-profile debacle of his shot-for-shot Psycho remake—Van Sant started styling himself as an austere long-take specialist à la European grandmasters like Béla Tarr, ramping up camera movement even as he slowed the pace of his scenes down to a deliberate crawl. This half-entrancing, half-alienating aesthetic was perfected in Elephant, a strategic re-creation of the Columbine shootings that split the difference between naturalism, myth, and horror-movie exploitation; the tracking shots through high school hallways before, during, and in the aftermath of a massacre evoked the menace of Halloween. In a Cannes selection filled with controversial heavyweights from Lars Von Trier’s Dogville to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, Van Sant’s weirdly serene provocation impressed a jury including Meg Ryan and Steven Soderbergh and earned a Best Director prize in addition to the Palme. Viewed now, Elephant can’t help but play as a product of its time (i.e., the casting of That’s My Bush! star Timothy Bottoms as a drunk dad in an ominously funny prologue), but it remains one of the most unsettlingly accomplished American movies of the new millennium, and exactly as difficult to categorize or definitively interpret as its maker intended.

L’Enfant (2006)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

In terms of international festival films, no directors wielded more influence in the 2000s than Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose intensely pressurized tales of endurance and redemption in working-class Seraing ushered in a trend of hard-scrabble, handheld naturalism. If the pair’s first Palme d’Or in 1999 for Rosetta was a surprise—courtesy an oft-wily, unpredictable Canadian jury president in David Cronenberg—the prize seven years later for L’Enfant was akin to a coronation, placing them squarely at the top of the era’s art-house hierarchy. The film’s set-up is pure melodrama, as a young hustler callously sells his infant son and is then forced to retrieve it; from there, the story switches tracks to become a more metaphorical meditation on responsibility and paternity. With their relentless pacing and vividly run-down backdrops, the Dardennes’ films often play like thrillers, and L’Enfant deals in matters of (organized) crime and punishment without compromising its emotional acuity or spiritual purity. As in their even greater 2002 effort The Son, the Dardennes’ main interest is in the human capacity for love and forgiveness, and their tough-minded devoutness about both results in movies that can feel like miracles.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Streaming on HBO Now

Or: “Are you there, God? It’s me, Terry.” Of all the things you can say about The Tree of Life, the truest may be that it definitively unlocked something in its maker. After making a grand total of five movies between 1973 and 2011, Terrence Malick has been on a relative tear following his Cannes triumph, with four deeply divisive features in the decade since. And whatever you think of To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and last year’s A Hidden Life, they’re so stylistically close to their immediate predecessor that The Tree of Life can’t help but feel like a turning point in the career of a major artist. For some, The Tree of Life’s mix of mysticism and memory may be tough to take, and those who need their stories told from left to right could be driven mad by Malick’s parallel approach to narrative, in which single scenes (or even shots) carry the weight and complexity of an entire short story; here, speed and beauty are synonymous, and in order to appreciate the latter you have to keep up with an editing rhythm that moves as fast as our synapses. Giggle at the whispery voice-over and CGI dinosaurs if you have to; in a time of compulsive irony as a cultural coping mechanism, Malick’s earnest pretentiousness surely invites derisive laughter. But it also withstands it, and like the ancient evergreen of its title, it towers benevolently over less ambitious movies—which is to say pretty much everything else.