As a student in Paris I went to see a production of Les Noces de Figaro at the Opéra Garnier. Far from an opera buff, I went for the experience and at 21 it was all very thrilling from opulent surroundings to the music and even the staging.
Most of the audience, however, did not share my enthusiasm for this particular performance. Partway through the first act, people began to hiss whenever a certain character would enter the stage and by the time we reached the last song before intermission, they were booing. Loudly.
What happened? Had the audience been put off by the muscle-spasm-style choreography? The two-level set filled with taxidermy and typewriters? And why didn’t they just leave, rather than stick it out to the end only to scream, as a gentleman did during the curtain call, “la mise en scène c’est de la merde!” (the staging is shit).
I hadn’t felt so embarrassed to be in an audience since my high school made the mistake of taking a bunch of teenagers to a production of Romeo and Juliet that included a naked butt. But this was not a few bored youngsters — it was majority of patrons seated in the orchestra. They had paid a lot to be there, were apparently having a terrible time and wanted everyone to know it.
This week at the Cannes film festival, a film made headlines in the US for eliciting a similar reaction. During the press night for Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees the film was loudly booed. According to an AFP wire story published in Libération, the director admitted at a press conference that he was “shaken” by the reaction. Matthew McConaughey simply said, “Everyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate.”
Given my previous experience I had to wonder, was this a French thing? I decided to ask around to see whether I knew any Americans who would react in such a way to a work of art. “I would never boo a film or performance,” answered Davis Robinson, Professor of Theater at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine “If it’s bad, I have no problem walking out during the show or at intermission.”
“In this country we take it as really rude when someone interrupts a show in any way,” Robinson says, with the exception being if audience participation is encouraged. “Maybe not so much with a film, but my experience has been people are pretty quiet.” Another friend reacted similarly, saying she would rather simply leave the venue, unless the work is extremely offensive. “I tend to think, well, if nothing else, what if someone’s mother is in the audience?”
As it happens, every response I got echoed the sentiment “if it’s bad, just leave.” In the case of the critics at Cannes, of course, they do not have the choice to leave before the end of the screening. But none of the reviews I’ve read describe Sea of Trees as offensive. In fact, it seems the main complaint is that it is corny or “interminable.” So what is going on?
“I don’t think it’s a French cultural phenomenon,” says François Truffart, Director of the ColCoa Film Festival in Los Angeles, writing to French Morning from Cannes, “It is extremely rare, just like in the US, to see an audience boo a film.”
“On the other hand,” continues Truffart, “It’s pretty common to see very specific booing at Cannes, where it’s a kind of tradition.” Truffart added that the reactions to the film in question were solicited during a press conference that was attended by critics and journalists from all over the world.
So although a post-pan press conference may be hard to watch, at least the artists who bring their work to Cannes can expect a vocal audience reaction as part of the culture of the festival and par for the course. This explains why the far more spirited debate last week took on a much less productive red carpet tradition: making sure women can’t enjoy comfortable footwear.
Featured image: Stock Photos from yu-jas/Shutterstock