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The wild and wonderful world of Cannes

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  • Cannes is the pre-eminent film festival in the world
  • First attempt at Cannes fest was in 1939; festival started in earnest in 1946
  • Filmmakers look to Cannes for big boost -- or big deals
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- The first Le Festival de Cannes opened September 1, 1939, an attempt to extend the tourist season and bring a little film flash to the little French Riviera town.

Cannes

Photographers await an announcement regarding the 2008 Cannes Film Festival in April.

It was not an auspicious beginning. On the same day, the Germans launched their invasion of Poland -- the opening shot of World War II.

The festival shut down on September 2.

Nevertheless, in the decades since it reopened in 1946, the Cannes Film Festival has established itself as the pre-eminent film festival in the world. It's a place where Hollywood glamour meets international style, wheeler-dealers try to sell their wares, hopeful starlets poses in bikinis (or less) and movie fans spend more time sitting in the dark, looking at images on a screen, than enjoying the lush Mediterranean daylight.

It's the kind of place that can make or break a film.

"Every year they come here to the Riviera, the new class of young American filmmakers, hoping for lightning to strike," critic Roger Ebert once wrote.

Some filmmakers -- American and otherwise -- manage to capture that bolt of electricity. As Ebert notes, Quentin Tarantino launched "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" at Cannes. "Easy Rider" got its first buzz at Cannes; so did Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It." "Marty" won the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, in 1955; months later its producers were accepting the Oscar for best picture. (To this day, it's the only film to have won both honors.)

Cannes also gave valuable exposure to "The Third Man," Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Ingmar Bergman's films, Japanese cinema and -- when he was a Hollywood pariah -- Orson Welles.

But the Cannes audience can be brutal with films they don't like. "The Da Vinci Code," which had its premiere at Cannes two years ago, was greeted with catcalls and hisses. An early version of 2003's "The Brown Bunny," an independent film by Vincent Gallo, sparked disagreement, with some French critics approving even as dozens of other audience members walked out. (Ebert called it, with deliberate hyperbole, "the worst film in the history of the festival"; he changed his mind when Gallo presented a re-edited version several months later.)

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Cannes began as a reaction against German and Italian dominance at the Venice Film Festival, with the Riviera town selected because -- in addition to its sunny location -- the town fathers agreed to underwrite a dedicated venue, according to the Web site "Cannes: A Festival Virgin's Guide."

By the early '50s, after a rough start, the festival had become a key spot to introduce films, particularly works coming from growing film industries in Europe and Asia.

And it was also a place to see and be seen: In 1954 -- the same year the Palme d'Or was inaugurated -- a well-endowed actress named Simone Sylva, who was serving as Miss Festival, took off her bikini top while posing with Robert Mitchum. A new Cannes tradition -- paparazzi ferociously surrounding pretty, barely dressed women -- was born. Check out a brief history of Cannes »

Though Cannes is hailed as a cineaste's paradise, it's become as much a home for deal-makers and publicists as film aficionados.

This year, the festival's lineup includes new films by Steven Soderbergh, Wim Wenders, Atom Egoyan, Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"), who's making his directing debut, as well as dozens of works by little-known filmmakers hoping to break into the big time. Expect to see as much talk about money and the overall scene as about the films themselves.

The attention is not always welcome.

"Cannes is a very strange place. I tried to show up as best I could and to try not to be cynical," the actress Lili Taylor once said.

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But like it or not, Cannes has become synonymous with movies. Indeed, some people don't even realize it was a town in France long before it became a celebration of cinema.

"So," singer Christina Aguilera once asked, "where's the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?"

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