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Cannes 2016: the festival's famous standing ovations and jeering boos don’t actually mean that much

They're just offshoots of the fest's particular culture.

'Clouds Of Sils Maria' Premiere - The 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival
The cast and crew of Clouds of Sils Maria were greeted by a wild standing ovation in 2014.
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Woody Allen's new film Café Society opened the 2016 Cannes Film Festival this week and was met with what the Hollywood Reporter called a "modest" standing ovation. Our own Gregory Ellwood has more.

Read through that Hollywood Reporter article, however, and you'll learn that the standing ovation in question lasted a full three minutes. That seems like a lot!

It's also especially distressing to those who wish that anyone who celebrates Allen's work would take into account the sexual abuse allegations made against him by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, or the fact that in a custody hearing, a judge called Allen's treatment of Farrow "inappropriate." Such a standing ovation could seem like a blithe sweeping under the rug of incredibly serious allegations.

And maybe that's true. But at the same time, I don't think anybody in the Café Society audience so much as considered this. And that's less because of Allen and more because of Cannes.

See, at Cannes, pretty much every movie gets a long standing ovation, to the degree that three minutes really is modest.

Cannes is famous for long, wildly over-the-top standing ovations

Clouds of Sils Maria
The film Clouds of Sils Maria was greeted with a rousing ovation in 2014.
IFC Films

The first thing to know about that three-minute ovation is that it doesn't necessarily mean Café Society is any good. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, but reactions at Cannes tend to be extremely enthusiastic — regardless of whether they're positive or negative — simply because it's the world's foremost film festival, and, thus, the major creative personnel behind any given film will be right there in the room. (For more on how Cannes attained its superlative status, read this film festival explainer by Noel Murray.)

It's human nature to want to tell people they did a good job if they happen to be in the same room as you, even if the movie you just watched was merely okay. A similar impulse fuels all those TV sitcoms with live studio audience laughter; even if the jokes aren't that great, the desire to recognize the actors working so hard to entertain you is real. The result is compulsive laughter that can sound odd to a viewer watching at home, who feels no such desire.

But Cannes is especially prone to this sort of behavior for a number of reasons. The first is that, again, it's the most prestigious film festival in the world. Winning its top prize, the Palme d'Or, still means something, so the films that compete there tend to be really good, or at least really interesting. Odds are that most Cannes movies will be worth the extended applause.

Another reason for long ovations is that Cannes has become weirdly famous for them; the one that greeted Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 was estimated to be 20 minutes long, and ovations of 10 or even 15 minutes aren't all that uncommon, even for films that are ultimately forgotten by time.

Because Cannes is known for standing ovations, they become a kind of arms race — if you like a film, you might clap for five minutes; if you really liked it, you might go on for 10.

What happens during these ovations? Vulture live-blogged the 10-minute ovation received by Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014, and it mostly involves the actors waving to the crowd and essentially trying to keep the mania going. (For what it's worth, Clouds very much deserved that level of applause.)

Some films also get the flip side — boos

The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life was booed. Bad call, Cannes Film Festival 2011 attendees!
Fox Searchlight

If you check out Cannes coverage over the next few days (including here at Vox), you might come to believe that those who attend the festival have but two modes — leaping to their feet in wild adulation or leaping to their feet to angrily boo the directors and actors who dared desecrate the big screen with their trash.

The truth is actually somewhere in the middle. Stories of both record ovations and loud booing are often just a little overblown, inflated by the hype machine that is a film festival (even one that's skewed toward artier fare, like Cannes). There have been plenty of films that received both boos and claps, and the temptation to sort every movie into one pile or another reflects a movie discussion culture that is still plagued by simple "fresh"/"rotten" binaries.

But, okay, yeah, there are some movies that receive lots and lots of boos. Such a film was 2015's The Sea of Trees, directed by American indie auteur Gus Van Sant and starring none other than Matthew McConaughey.

Are you thinking now that you've never heard of Sea of Trees? That's probably because it quietly sank without a trace after its Cannes press screening was hailed by a chorus of Bronx cheers. (Magnanimously, McConaughey said, like a true constitutional scholar, "Anybody has a right to boo.")

But booing is not in any way a consistent guide to a film's quality. Sometimes it just indicates that attendees made up their minds about the film before it even unspooled.

And several all-time classics have been booed at Cannes, including the 2011 film The Tree of Life, which also received applause to counter the boos and then went on to win the Palme d'Or and receive an Oscar Best Picture nomination. (The Playlist has a list of several other much-liked or even beloved films that were booed at Cannes.)

The larger point is this: If you read a story about a wild reception to a film at Cannes, one way or the other, it doesn't necessarily mean anything. It just means that Cannes is still being Cannes — where attendees are crazily passionate about film, regardless of how that passion looks to the outside world.

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