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Cannes 2010: The Boo Bird: Will an exotic Cannes creature peek out of its nest?

May 11, 2010 |  3:40 pm

Even those with only a casual knowledge of Cannes (a film festival we finally reached Tuesday evening after two planes, two trains and a bus, as though in a European version of a John Hughes movie) probably know about one of its most venerable traditions: an audience expressing its, er, opinion of a movie it doesn't like with post-screening boos and catcalls. (No, it's not just an "Entourage" myth.)

When it happens, the experience can be weird and even a little thrilling: Even though I'm at a film festival, one might think, people are actually sufficiently displeased with what they've seen that they care to vocalize it, almost as though they're personally defending the medium from perceived barbarians.. That it all goes down with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns adds to the hilarity/surrealness.

But the truth is these booing incidents happen much less frequently than you'd think -- and in very specific circumstances. Middling films generally don't get boos -- they simply get shorter ovations (forget tracking -- at Cannes, audience satisfaction can be measured by the length of ovations. It's approval ratings by way of the stopwatch.)

And controversial films or movies in questionable taste -- Lars von Trier's genital-mutilating "Antichrist" comes to mind --might get some boos, but those sounds are usually drowned out by polite or occasionally even hearty contrarian applause. (One of the few films that couldn't manage this was Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" -- even contrarians have their standards.)

The movies that do reliably tend to draw the jeers are those that show France or French figures in a revisionist light. Sofia Coppola's stylized, at times sympathetic portrait of "Marie Antoinette" four years ago is an instructive example. The audience didn't like how Coppola represented the period, and they didn't like how the last French queen came off, so they let Coppola know it. (Incidentally, a movie that fits more with the French's notion of their own identity, as last year's "Inglourious Basterds" did -- the movie portrays them as victims and heroes -- tends to draw more generosity, at least as a very general rule.)

Which brings us to this year's opening-night film, "Robin Hood." On the surface, this is a movie that should draw nothing but applause, and the lengthy kind at that. It's a big popcorn adventure with an arty gloss, exactly the kind of film that plays to the refined but spectacle-hungry opening-night crowds, as "Up" did last year. And with Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe starring, "Robin Hood" has the kind of actors -- glamorous but heady -- that Cannes audiences usually eat up.

Except for one problem: The movie doesn't exactly show France in the most flattering light. Many who've seen early screenings have noted the movie's rank portrayal of the French, who are shown to be villainous and bloodthirsty, a sharp contrast to the film's English warrior heroes.
As Kirk Honeycutt notes in the Hollywood Reporter. "The French are seen in an unsavory light at every turn. Mind you, these are not the French of the late 12th century – the film’s time period – but very much George W. Bush’s French: untrustworthy, cowardly and entirely self-interested."

Granted, the 12th century period of the film is not one that is necessarily close to many French citizens' hearts. But when it comes to their own kind, any country would be carefully attuned to how it's portrayed. And the French audience  in Cannes can be especially ... protective.

Director Ridley Scott has opted not to come to the festival this year. He's recovering from knee surgery and couldn't make the trip. We wish him well and hope for a speedy recovery. As for the French audience, it remains to be seen whether they, well, cry out with a different sort of pain.

--Steven Zeitchik (follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT).

Photo: The  "Inglourious Basterds" premiere at Cannes 2009. Credit: Festival de Cannes