Boo who? Why great films get jeered at Cannes

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, which was booed at this year's Cannes Film Festival
Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, which was booed at this year's Cannes Film Festival

 A version of this article was first published on May 22 2015

Does the Cannes Film Festival have a serious boos problem, and is it time to stage an intervention? The question blew up with fresh fury this year when Personal Shopper, the new film from Olivier Assayas and starring Kristen Stewart, was met by a chorus of hoots and groans at its first press screening

Sitting in the audience, I knew that the film would be booed around five minutes into it – not because it’s bad, but because after a few years on the circuit, you get a sense for the kind of provocations that tend to rub a festival audience up the wrong way. Often, they’re the very same things that end up winning the film a dedicated fan-base in the long term. In the case of Assayas’s film, one is its un-ironic commitment to the fact that Stewart’s character – a celebrity’s personal assistant with tragedy in her recent past – is actually, seriously, in communion with the dead. 

“It’s extremely difficult to find a portal into the spirit world,” she announces in an early scene, as flatly as if she was talking about a turn-off on the M1 – and you could hear sharp intakes of breath around the auditorium, as people wondered if they were the butt of some kind of deadpan joke on Assayas’s part. Sure enough, a little under two hours later, they expressed their disapproval.

Cannes is a two-week feast of cinema, and even in a year like this – the strongest by far that I’ve covered to date – it’s easy for critics to slip into the role of Banquo, hovering menacingly at the back and harshing the mad king’s mellow. That’s partly because critics’ opinions make a real difference at festivals: everyone wants to know what’s worth queueing for, and every morning, delegates peruse the grids of star-ratings in the trade publications to identify the best-reviewed contenders. 

This year’s is a three-hour German comedy called Toni Erdmann, which attracted a near clean-sweep of top marks across the Screen International grid of 13 notable critics from around the world, of which your correspondent is one. The fact that there were two spontaneous mid-film rounds of applause during Toni Erdmann became part of the film’s glamour and legend. And Personal Shopper – to its credit, I think – will now be known as the Kristen Stewart ghost story film that was booed at Cannes.

Things reached a head at last year’s festival after the press screening of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, a genuinely atrocious film, which was met with a storm of whistling and cat-calls.

In the first of two articles on the incident on the industry website Deadline, the show-business columnist Pete Hammond called the booing “a cloud over the festivities”, and suggested the film would be unfairly “tainted” by the subsequent coverage. Meanwhile, Naomi Watts, one of the film’s stars, suggested that critics should perhaps be required not to write or report anything about the film or the audience’s reaction until its black-tie premiere the following evening was safely out of the way.

As it was, by the time the premiere took place, everyone in town knew that The Sea of Trees was a trumpeting dud. Reviews were being widely and gleefully shared on social media (my colleague Tim Robey wrote that it “needed cordoning off with safety rope”), while Watts and her co-star Matthew McConaughey’s procession up the red-carpeted steps of the Palais that evening took on a horrifically compelling walk-of-shame quality. Twelve months on, The Sea of Trees has yet to be released in the UK, and you can bet its rough reception at Cannes is the reason.

Grin and bear it: Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts attend the Premiere of widely panned The Sea Of Trees Credit: Getty Images

Bad films are often booed, but not all booed films are bad. In fact, many films that were victims of Cannes catcalls are now regarded as classics, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

More recently, at Venice two years ago, one of the best films of the last decade, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, was booed with gusto – and I remember slumping in my seat in that screening while the credits rolled, stupefied by the disconnect between my experience of the film and that of seemingly everyone around me.

Looking back, though, I wouldn’t have changed it. The boos became part of Under the Skin’s inscrutable mystique, and told a story about its arrival into an unprepared world. Boos aren’t an objective expression of a film’s quality so much as the context in which it first appears.

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

L’Avventura would have been a failure if it hadn’t been booed. Antonioni wanted to challenge everything the 1960 audience thought they knew about cinema in that film, and its rocky reception proved that he managed it.

Although The Sea of Trees’ thwarted distributors might beg to differ, that doesn’t mean every film that’s booed is an avant-garde masterpiece. But rather than getting too precious about it, why not embrace the boos for what they are – a visceral, made-in-the-moment response that’s as honest and impassioned as a round of applause?

I can’t imagine I’d ever personally be moved to boo a film, but suspect that’s more to do with manners than ethics (In 10 years of doing this job, I’ve never heard a British film critic boo anything), and would hate for them to dry up.

They’re just too useful. As well as providing a snapshot of a film’s contemporary audience, they inspire debate, fire up the critical defence, and give colour and energy to a film festival’s ongoing churn. In their own way, they’re as vital as cheers, like the one that followed last year’s screening of the Pixar film Inside Out: a great football-stadium roar that rattled the rafters of the Grand Theatre Lumière.

In the end, no-one said anything smarter on the subject than McConaughey, who took a sanguine view at a press conference last year on the afternoon before The Sea of Trees’ fateful premiere. 

"Anyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate,” he shrugged, then moved on to the next question. Haters gonna hate, ovaters gonna ovate. At Cannes, it has ever been thus, and long may it continue to be so.