The success of so many Australians in Cannes over the years lends weight to those who believe there is a special relationship between the French and Australian film communities. After all, 70 years of competition with fellow English-speaking filmmaking countries, the United States and Britain, didn't get us very far. As a result, until the new wave of the 1970s, few Australian films had been made since the 1930s.
In reality, the special relationship is a series of key connections, relationships nurtured and built over time but all perhaps beginning – it turns out – with someone's excellent eye for real estate: the iconic penthouse apartment overlooking the famous Croisette and the sea. The Australians took over the spectacular seaside office in 1976 and occupied it until the owner took the space over again in 2010.
The Australian waves of the 1970s and '90s in Cannes would not have happened without key individuals on the French and Australian side. Respected film writer and critic David Stratton, for instance, used his role as a senior member of the influential International Federation of Film Critics, known as FIPRESCI, to promote and evangelise Australian film. He twice chaired the Cannes jury and was well placed to liaise between Australian and French organisers.
Critical also was the influence of artistic director Pierre Rissient and long-time festival director Gilles Jacob, who finally stepped down last year, in 2015, after almost 40 years at the helm.
Sue Murray who was appointed Australian Film Commission's marketing director in 1987, saw how the relationship worked in detail.
"Jacob was always interested in seeing something from Australia. He would give feedback to the filmmakers, even if it wasn't going to be selected or, if it was, he would give strategic advice and he would champion people such as Jane Campion and many others."
Current Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux and Christian Jeune, head of its Film Office, who last October judged the Adelaide Film Festival, have maintained the connection with Australian film.
A 'TOUGH NEGOTIATOR' AND A FAN
In 1975, Jeannine Seawell was an English sales agent living in Paris. "She was instrumental in getting Australian films present in Cannes in those first few years," Melbourne producer and distributor Tony Ginnane said.
"Seawell, through her own initiative, came out to Australia, and set up a sales agency. Through a series of serendipitous moments she met the [producers] the McElroy brothers [Hal and Jim], Peter Weir, and then went to Melbourne and became the sales agent for Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which came two-and-a-half years later. Jeannine lived in Paris and had a very strong relationship with Cannes.
"We didn't have [an international sales agent] in Australia; it was really important that someone represented the films and Jeannine did that, and she was a tough negotiator on behalf of the filmmakers. She looked after Paul Cox's films for quite a while."
Then there was Bernard Bories. As a 17-year-old in Paris, Bories saw Picnic at Hanging Rock and became hooked on Australian film. But to see such films from this faraway country was not easy. He got a day pass train ride to Cannes, where he walked into the Australian Film Commission office and ended up seeing four films in a day.
Now, in 2016, Cannes is hosting Cannes Antipodes – Cinéma des Antipodes – a sidebar festival, for the 22nd year, created and run by Bories. Equally impressive is that in 2004, after the election of a new mayor, Bories' program shrank to just two short films, but the backlash from festival attendees was so great that the program was reinstated.
TRIUMPHS AND DISASTERS
There have been many wonderful, and sometimes terrible, on screen experiences for Australians. It's said the snap of the old spring-loaded chairs in the Palais sound like a gunshot. When an audience walks out en masse the noise resembles a machine gun.
History shows the Australian victims of such experiences have survived and made other films. Jane Campion suffered with Sweetie (and she returned to share the Palme d'Or, for her film The Piano) and Ray Lawrence had success when he returned with Lantana (2003), though admittedly that was 18 years after his 1985 Bliss was not appreciated by the Cannes audience.
A more edifying Australian experience was the reaction to the screening of Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country in 2014. The judges were so moved by actor David Gulpilil's performance they created a special best actor award.
There have been other bumps in the road. Aside from the cultural irritations – Phillip Adams maintains "the French invented arrogance" – there were also political ones. Australia's opposition to the French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll over its 30-year span (1966-1996) grew more vocal. For a time in the early 1980s, Australians had to get visas to enter France, and the sinking of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand later, in 1985, had a similar impact.
DREAMS AND DELUSIONS
Cannes is now massive business. Last year's film market attracted more than 5000 companies and 1834 registered buyers. More than 11,500 visitors registered.
"This whole concept of independent movies being sold by sales agents really just began in the late '60s, early '70s and it progressively became a massive parallel event [which] you didn't have in the '50s and [early] '60s," Ginnane says.
The festival itself has an annual budget of €20 million ($31 million). It always takes place over 12 days in May and so the – usually – pleasant spring weather provides the backdrop to a heady cocktail of festival glitz and commerce.
COMPETITION WILL ONLY GET HOTTER
While this 40th anniversary is a time of celebration for Screen Australia and appreciation too for those who have gone before, the world of the future is going to be radically different for story-tellers and the film industry.
The habits of the 16- to 25-year-old demographic have changed radically in recent times.
"Younger people look at content as a global thing; they don't care where it comes from," Screen Australia chief executive officer Graeme Mason says. "They mostly watch it online, they rarely go to the cinemas. The only thing they go to see at the cinemas is big glossy superhero films. There's a different whole article to be written on the cultural imperialism of Hollywood because that's been incredibly successful."
The other major change is the number of films now being made worldwide. "You have to think about the volume of stuff that is made now; everyone around the world is making 10 times or 100 times the content they were making before, so the competition for those very few slots in Cannes is much more intense than in the 1970s."
By John Doggett-Williams
The full version of this article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review