cannes film festival most controversial films

Everyone loves drama. Better yet — controversy! Cinema, historically, has shown an appetite for, and an ability to, conjure cultural blasphemy.

In that spirit, a major champion of the controversial has always been the acclaimed Cannes Film Festival, now in its 69th year.

Cannes featuring cinema-taboo makes completely sense; the festival was born of controversy. Creator Jean Zay created the festival in response to Hitler’s rigging of the 1939 Venice Film Festival, all but forcing the jury to grant “Cardinal Messias” (a fascistic favorite) the festival’s top prize.

So, in tribute to films the Cinema gods once wagged their fingers towards, let’s celebrate titles that ruffled the feathers of this often-times “high brow” festival, and know that it’s ok to break the rules every once in a while.

La Dolce Vita, by Federico Fellini (1960)

A journalist/man-about-town struggles to decide between the “sweet life” of Rome vs the stifling domesticity offered by his girlfriend. The Catholic Church took issue with the film’s loose morals and uninspired portrayal of Mama Rome. Such buzz only elevated interest and propelled Fellini’s masterwork to the Palme d’Or.

Viridiana, by Luis Buñuel (1961)

“I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXII is a better judge of such things than I am,” said director Luis Buñuel. A young Nun about to take her last vows is sent to care for her recently widowed/troubled Uncle. The film was approved by the Spanish government only to have them pull a “180” after the screening at Cannes — particularly objectionable was the film’s depiction of rape. This film won the Palme d’Or that year but was banned in Spain until 1977.

La Religieuse, by Jacques Rivette (1966)

A young French woman is forced into a convent by her cruel family only to be physically and psychologically tortured. While in “captivity” she encounters a hateful mother, a lesbian nun, and a sympathetic (but lustful) monk. Cannes bravely allowed this film to premiere to a majority of critical praise.

Jungle Fever, by Spike Lee (1991)

African American men dating outside of their race. Cannes provocateur Lee triumphs here, in terms of navigating and x-ray-ing the worth of social stereotypes and cultural taboos. Critics and Cannes applauded, loudly.

La Haine, by Matthieu Kassovitz (1995)

Three young men in a French suburban “ghetto” over a span of 24 hours after an unjust beating by the police. The incendiary subject matter prompted several French councils to deny the physical production of the film in their home regions. Kassovitz’s debut feature was ultimately praised not only at Cannes but also but also by the French Prime Minister at the time, Alain Juppé, who couldn’t deny this “beautiful work”.

Brown Bunny, by Vincent Gallo (2003)

Long takes, very little dialogue, and oh that last scene. Deemed “the worst film in the history of the festival” by Robert Ebert. Gallo’s art-house indie sparked a war of words between the filmmaker and acclaimed critic, which in turn lead to Gallo’s director re-editing the film if not winning the hearts and minds of Cannes and Ebert.