CANNES FESTIVAL – The backstory of the festival’s musical theme

Last Updated: March 29, 2013By Tags: ,

I was looking for some music online when, by some coincidence, I ran into the “Carnival of the Animals” suite by French romantic composer Camille de Saint Saëns.

The arrangement I found was by Barry Wordsworth and the London Symphonic Orchestra. The melodies had a pleasant, cinematic quality to them. The titles of the arrangements,  “Kangaroos,” “People with long ears,” sounded as if they’d been lifted from Michel Gondry’s scrap book.

And then, the unpredictable occurred: “Aquarium,” the better-known piece from “Carnival of the Animals” came on the loudspeakers. I couldn’t believe it; this was the same music that’d been used by the Cannes Film Festival for the opening title sequence which plays before every screening (see video player below).

The same fairytale-like splendor, the whirlwind-like glissandos, it was all there—I was spellbound by it. Here I was, right back in my seat at the Lumière Theatre, waiting for the first screening of the day to start.

The same day I contacted Cannes Festival president Gilles Jacob (pictured) to ask him about this all came to be.

Gilles Jacob:

The story of the “Carnival of Animals” is an interesting one.

The year was 1990. I was looking for something for the Cannes festival’s opening title sequence, something that wasn’t showy like the opening credit sequences some distributors come up with. They knock you on the head loudly to say they’re the most important ones in the world—and I don’t doubt it. But these can have a negative effect on the audience, especially if they precede screenings of understated, art-house fare (like a masterpiece by Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu or Woody Allen).

These credit sequences are all the more annoying because there are several of them in a row nowadays. Perhaps some sellers think that showing off like this still make you noticed? Anyway …

At the time, my idea was to find a musical phrase that was sweet, melodious, and which reminded one of a rainfall of sound, one in which the staccatos would be replaced by legatos.

One day I remembered the soundtrack for “Days of heaven,” (Terrence Malick; 1978), a movie shown at Cannes in 1979 and which became one of my desert-island must-haves along with the other ones like “The Rule of the Game” (Jean Renoir; 1939), “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles; 1941), “The Music Room” (Satyajit Ray; 1959), “Wild Strawberries” (Ingmar Bergman; 1957), and “Amarcord” (Federico Fellini; 1973).

That harmony had urgency in it, it sounded luminous–liquid, even. Not only did it move me but its length was perfectly-suited to the visual sequence that had already been produced.

A few things happened after that which I did not expect.

I’d never imagined that the day that we tried to replace the opening music the audience would threaten to break the theatre’s seats.

After this song was adopted by the Cannes Festival, including by our telephone switchboard, I hadn’t expected either that when people called us from around the world and were placed on hold they would say, “what a shame you didn’t keep me on hold longer. I was spellbound by your music.”

And it is a powerful thing. This theme music largely contributes to the fact that the Cannes Festival title sequence is applauded every night, and sometimes during every single screening.

In 1991, after it had been put together by a very talented lab technician named Frederic Grosjean, I gave the greenlight to produce this title sequence which, as you’ll recall, starts at the bottom of the ocean, rises above the waves and ends up among the stars–where the Palme D’Or belongs.

This rising to the stars is reminiscent of another kind—and just as symbolic (quasi-religious, in fact)—of ascent: that of the red stairs which, since 1984 (the second year at our current location and my seventh year as festival director) have symbolized the brand of the Cannes Festival.

But the story isn’t over.

This piece of music lasts twenty-nine seconds. And it wouldn’t have worked out as well with any other recording besides the one done by the Orchestra of the Toulouse Capitol, led by Michel Masson (EMI).

I’ve tried it with other recordings, without success. It’s the eternal mystery of the marriage of image and sound, isn’t it? An image can move you all by itself, and so can music, but combining one with the other creates such a strange alchemy and compounds the excitement—any film composer will tell you, it’s magical.

Once the sequence was edited and mastered I played it at home to my heart’s content.

My eldest son who knows classical music like the back of his hand walked in one night while I was listening to it and said: “come, I need to show you something. He took me into his room, popped a CD in and made me listen to the same melody. So I go, “You have Ennio Morricone’s movie soundtracks… so?” No, he responded verbatim, “what you call Morricone is actually Saint-Saëns.”

I suppose Il Maestro wanted to pay tribute to another maestro without telling him, or perhaps he did, it’s not important.

What’s important is that Saint-Saëns, by way of Ennio Morricone, has bequeathed the most beautiful gift ever to the Cannes Festival: putting each festival-goer, at each screening, in such a state of bliss and anticipation that it makes him euphoric right from the start. What happens after that… well, to each his own.

(it’s noteworthy that the opening clip was digitized in 2002, and the quick passage of the fish was layered in at that time).

Finally, and by a wonderful turn of events, it was thrilling to see that the 2011 Palme D’Or was handed to Terrence Malick for “Tree of Life.” In a way this has enabled the Cannes Festival to reconnect with Terry’s first forays in cinema and mine as director of the festival. We’ve come full circle.

(interview available in French on the site of the Cannes Festival)

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Translated from the French by Ali Naderzad.

Published on Screen Comment © Gilles Jacob

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One Comment

  1. sb July 4, 2011 at 9:28 am

    bravo ali!

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