Cannes scandals: 5 most controversial film festival moments

Story highlights

  • Since its inception, Cannes has attracted protests, spats and stunts
  • CNN looks at some of the greatest scandals to have rocked the festival
  • Among them: Danish director Lars von Trier says he is a Nazi and is banned
  • '50s starlet strips on beach and photographer breaks ankle in scrum for photos
Cannes has been a hotbed of controversy since the beginning. The first festival, organized by the French in 1939 as a response to the Venice Film Festival -- then a vehicle for Nazi propaganda movies -- had to be canceled after it launched on the day WWII broke out.
The festival returned in 1946 and has since been a fertile ground for taboo-breaking films, wannabes disrobing for a shot at fame, public spats between directors and critics and publicity stunts gone wrong.
The latest rumpus surrounds "Grace of Monaco," a biopic of Grace Kelly, the Oscar-winning American actress who subsequently became the princess of Monaco.
The film has been criticized by the Monaco royal family who said it contains "major historical untruths and a series of purely fictional scenes." The festival would not comment on whether Prince Albert and his sisters, Caroline and Stéphanie would attend the gala premiere.
Altercations, scandals and stunts are arguably as much the lifeblood of Cannes as the films and here, in no particular order, are some of the greatest.
Robert Mitchum and the topless starlet
Publicity-hungry starlet Simone Silva took her top off during a photo shoot with Hollywood star Robert Mitchum and briefly made global headlines during an infamous incident at the 1954 festival.
The British B-movie actress and glamor model turned up on the Croisette looking for exposure and was quickly crowned "Miss Festival" by organizers who set the photo shoot up for her on the beach.
"The photographers got down on their knees to plead with me to take the top off," she was quoted as saying in Ohio newspaper, The Daily Reporter.
She did, removing her flimsy scarf top and cuddling up to Robert Mitchum, in just a grass skirt and covering her breasts with her hands. In the ensuing scrum three photographers fell into the Mediterranean, a fourth broke his ankle and another suffered a fractured elbow.
Silva left the festival a few days later, after being asked to leave, but remained defiant: "As long as sex is box office and I keep my figure, I'm out to be the sexiest thing on, oh, two legs."
Dead pigeon gag gone wrong
There are some things you just know are a bad idea, right? Apparently not if you are the upstart cast of a hot Brit-flick.
In 2001, actors from "24 Hour Party People," which tells the story of the Manchester music scene in the late '80s, attacked each other with dead pigeons on a private Cannes beach splattering diners at an exclusive restaurant with fake blood, feathers and worse.
Security guards threatened the actors with mace and they were unceremoniously ejected from the beach along with the film crew and entourage of British journalists who had been watching gleefully.
Actor Danny Cunningham, who played Shaun Ryder the wild lead singer of Manchester indie band Happy Mondays came up with the ill-judged publicity stunt. He said it was inspired by an alleged incident from Ryder's youth shown in the film where he poisoned 3,000 Manchester pigeons with crack cocaine. The actors brought stuffed pigeons as props for the stunt.
Cunningham, who received a cut to the head in the scuffle, told the BBC: "I think Shaun would have been proud of us. We came to Cannes to be wild and now we are going home."
New Wave on the beach
It was May 1968 and revolution was in the air. Students were marching in the streets and workers were participating in the biggest strike France has ever seen. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of that fever would infiltrate the rarefied movie theaters of Cannes.
Politics burst into the festival when a group of filmmakers led by New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut demanded it close in solidarity with the strikes.
"We're talking solidarity with students and workers and you are talking dolly shots and close-ups," Godard memorably shouted from behind a pair of Ray-Bans. "You're assholes!"
Godard and Truffaut stopped the next screening by hanging off the curtain as it was being pulled back and the festival was canceled shortly after, five days before its scheduled end. No prizes were handed out.
Over the next few years, counterculture also invaded the content of the festival with films like "Easy Rider" and "M*A*S*H."
Vincent Gallo vs Roger Ebert
When cult film director and actor Vincent Gallo turned up to Cannes in 2003 with "The Brown Bunny," an incoherent road movie with a graphic, unsimulated oral sex scene, the critics booed in boredom and disgust and Roger Ebert called it "the worst film in the history of the festival."
A humiliated Gallo returned to the U.S. and began a new edit of the film but found the time to embark on a vicious war of words with Ebert, calling him "a fat pig," who "had the physique of a slave trader," topping it off by putting a hex on his colon and saying he hoped he got cancer.
Ebert retorted, tartly: "I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than "The Brown Bunny."
And added, in a twist on late UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill's immortal line: "It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of 'The Brown Bunny.'"
Amazingly, the spat ended in a truce. Gallo finished his re-edit and showed "The Brown Bunny" at Toronto where Ebert saw it again, this time awarding it three out of a possible four stars.
Lars von Trier: 'Ok, I'm a Nazi'
In 2011, famously eccentric Danish director Lars von Trier told onlookers at a press conference that he was a Nazi, that he understood Hitler and that his next film could be The Final Solution.
"I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I think I understand the man," said Von Trier while Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, stars of his sci-fi drama "Melancholia," looked on in helpless disbelief.
"How do I get out of this? Ok, I'm a Nazi," he added shortly after in what could kindly be described as an ill-judged joke. Festival officials condemned his statements, which he retracted shortly after, but officials still took unusual step of banning him from the festival.
Von Trier has been a one-man scandal factory since he started showing films at Cannes in the '80s. Incensed at being passed over for the top prize in 1991, he called Jury President Roman Polanski a "midget," while Icelandic musician Bjork, who won Best Actress for her starring role in his 2000 film "Dancer in the Dark" said she would never act again.
But perhaps his greatest scandal (apart from the Nazi joke) was in 2009 when there were reports that some audience members fainted from shock after watching a scene in his grotesque art-horror "Antichrist" in which Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilates her genitals. The ecumenical jury at Cannes called it "misogynistic" and awarded it a special anti-prize.