The Worst Cannes Premieres Ever
June 30, 2023
What do Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick all have in common? Well, along with all being considered some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, they’ve each had one of their movies on the receiving end of some nasty booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The audiences (and critics) on the French Riviera are famous for being extremely vocal about their adoration or hatred of a movie, with some being showered with physically taxing standing ovations (Pan’s Labyrinth holds the record at 22 minutes), or a deafening amount of boos and whistling.
But not every movie that gets booed is created equal. In the case of Martin Scorsese, his 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver was the victim of a large contingent of vocal detractors. That didn’t stop the jury from awarding the film the Palme d’Or, nor Scorsese from returning to the festival years later (he’ll be back again this year with Killers of the Flower Moon).
This article isn’t going to be an inspiring story about the movies that overcame the negativity. No, the nine movies listed here all received their death sentence within the Grand Théâtre Lumière, either because of the weight of expectations or being of poor quality, or both.
The Brown Bunny (2003)
Credited as the writer/director/producer/star/cinematographer/editor (as well as about every other craft position), Vincent Gallo solely faced all the backlash in 2003 when he unveiled his much-anticipated follow-up to the indie sensation Buffalo ‘66. The highly-experimental film caught flack for its glacial pacing and pretentiousness, with particular ire aimed at the unsimulated blowjob scene between Gallo and Chloë Sevigny. Audiences booed and ironically cheered each time Gallo’s name appeared on screen, with Roger Ebert calling it “the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.”
Gallo didn’t take kindly to Ebert’s words, calling the critic a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.” Ebert responded by saying “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.” Surprisingly, the two sides would reconcile, with an edited-down version of the film screening at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which Ebert reviewed positively.
Southland Tales (2006)
Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly thought he was entering the lottery when he submitted a rough cut of his sophomore feature, Southland Tales, for the 2006 festival. To his (and pretty much everyone else's) surprise, the selection committee liked it and invited him into the Official Competition. Kelly leaped at the opportunity, even if it meant he had to rush through the post-production process.
That decision backfired badly, as critics lambasted the 160-minute film for being too broad and unfinished. The boos and whistles rattled throughout the Lumière Theater, with Roger Ebert calling the screening “The most disastrous since, yes, The Brown Bunny." Kelly shared the same sentiments: "It was painful. I just thought, 'Please let it be over.” He went back to the editing room, getting more money from Sony to fix the visual effects in exchange for a reduced runtime. The film wasn’t seen again for another sixteen months, when it got an extremely limited theatrical release, grossing a little over $275,000 (the film was budgeted nearly $25 million).
Burnt by the Sun 2 (2010)
As the most expensive film in Russian history with a budget of $55 million, Nikita Mikhalkov's long-delayed sequel to his Oscar-winning film had enormous expectations. Cannes even circumvented their “world premieres only” rule by allowing the film into the Official Competition after it was first screened at the Kremlin.
But by the time it reached the Lumière Theatre, the World War II film had already been panned by critics from both Russia, who claimed it was inaccurate and revisionist, and the West, who saw it as poorly-made Soviet propaganda. Mikhalkov's supportive stance of Vladimir Putin didn’t make things any better, with the film becoming one of the biggest bombs in the country’s history.
Only God Forgives (2013)
Between his films and overall demeanor, everything about Nicolas Winding Refn is divisive. So it’s not surprising that 2011’s Drive received one of the lengthiest standing ovations in festival history at 15 minutes, while also receiving a small handful of booing.
That same dichotomy happened when Refn returned two years later with Only God Forgives, only this time the roles were reversed, with the boos overwhelming any positivity. Many critics described it as a beautiful painting without any substance, with Refn reaching even further into his pretentiousness.
Rumors began to spread that the film was originally supposed to be screened as part of the Midnight Madness sidebar, where it would have potentially benefited from the lessened expectations. But the producers wanted to repeat the success of Drive and demanded a slot in the Official Competition. The negative outcome from that decision crushed any audience anticipation for the film, as it grossed a paltry sum when released a few months later.
The Captive (2014)
Several eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Ryan Reynolds would be starring in Atom Egoyan’s newest film. But Egoyan’s films (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) had always been praised for their offbeat nature, so there was still some optimism. But the pairing of one of Canada’s biggest stars and filmmakers went south quickly, as critics panned their film for its confusing nonlinear narrative and exploitative subject matter.
American distributor A24, still in their early stages before they would become the festival darlings they are today, released the film on DirecTV’s VOD platform that winter to no fanfare. Even in Canada, where the film was given a theatrical release, the film was quickly buried and forgotten.
The Search (2014)
While Michel Hazanavicius didn’t become a household name after winning Best Director and Best Picture with The Artist in 2011, you’d still be surprised to know that his follow-up to that movie has still never been released within the United States. Much of the reasoning behind the film’s disappearance comes from its abysmal premiere at Cannes, which had launched The Artist after it was promoted to the competition at the last minute.
But now that the lights were brighter, Hazanavicius crumbled, with his preachy and ultra-dreary retelling of the 1999 Chechnya civil war being perceived as exploitative. Hazanavicius has been back to the festival since, but he’s been demoted to just a regular player instead of the star that he seemed destined to become.
Grace of Monaco (2014)
Cannes has never had much luck when it comes to selecting its opening night film, with 2014’s Grace of Monaco being the biggest of all the offenders. Even by January 2013, Grace Kelly’s family disowned the film and claimed it was inaccurate. Harvey Weinstein, known for his frequent battles with directors among various other unspeakable things, had issues with director Olivier Dahan’s cut of the movie. The movie was pushed from the Fall of 2013 to the next spring so Weinstein could recut it. It was delayed again for a premiere at Cannes in May, where critics claimed it was of lower quality than a Lifetime Original Movie. Both Weinstein and the film’s writer Arash Amel were absent at the press conference after the disastrous screening.
Coincidentally, the film bypassed a theatrical release in favor of a television debut on Lifetime a year later. Despite all the overwhelmingly negative reactions, star Nicole Kidman controversially received a SAG nomination, and the film received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Television Movie.
The Last Face (2016)
Audiences tend to wait until a movie is over before they give out their signature applause and/or boos. But the critics seeing Sean Penn’s refugee drama needed only one minute before letting out the hoots and hollers. The “call to action” love story starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem was savaged pretty much the whole way through, with the awful dialogue and white savior narrative being perceived as an insult to those that watched it. Many critics dubbed it as the worst film they’d ever seen at the festival.
To make matters worse, the press screening took place in the morning, with the public premiere that night, meaning all those scathing reviews and tweets were out into the world before the cast had even walked the red carpet. The embarrassment from that situation caused the festival to implement embargoes in future years, holding all press reactions until after the evening gala screenings had finished.
Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo
Fresh after winning the Palme d’Or for Blue is the Warmest Color, writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche premiered Canto Uno, the supposed first part in his new Mektoub, My Love trilogy, at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. The film received mixed reviews, with most critics complaining about the egregious 180-minute runtime and over-sexualization of the lead actors.
Instead of listening to the detractors, Kechiche went in the opposite direction with the sequel, extending the runtime by almost an hour and featuring lengthy unsimulated sex scenes. The large majority of the audience walked out before the film finished, with one person claiming that “if the shots of butts were taken out, I think the film lasts 20 minutes.” Many of the actors claimed that Kechiche got them intoxicated so they would be less resistant to filming the sexually explicit scenes and that he wouldn’t screen the film for them before the premiere.
The film has never been seen since that night, with Kechiche having to sell his Palme d’Or to raise funds for post-production after the financiers backed out. As further insult to injury, the final movie in the trilogy, Canto Due, was filmed before Intermezzo premiered, but no editing work has been done due to a lack of funds. Considering the allegations against Kechiche and the vitriolic response to the second part, it’s unlikely either of the final two parts will see the light of day.