Cannes Film Festival: Who'll be top dog?

May 20, 2008

Ignore Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones, the real excitement and clamour at the festival is all about the award for best movie pooch

Forget the golden leaves of the Palme d’Or, when critics and film fans meet this Friday on the Croisette the talk of the Cannes Film Festival will be which cinematic canine is in the spotlight for this year’s Palm Dog, the hairiest, silliest – and smelliest – award of the season.

“Dogs are crucial to films and yet they are totally overlooked,” says Toby Rose, who founded the ceremony for best on-screen dog performance. “This year I’m very excited about the dog that kisses Julianne Moore.” Technically, the canine-Moore love scene in the opening film Blindness is only a lick on the face, “But it’s still the only good thing about that film,” Rose says. There is also a promising Sundance documentary and a film bound for the UK that features a frisbee-playing puppy.

The Palm Dog is high Hollywood and high kitsch. For eight years (that’s 56 in dog years) Rose has been packing A-list and, it must be said, Z-list celebrities on to the Croisette to see which dogs would snatch victory from the drooling jaws of defeat. Winners strap on a legendary brass-studded black leather collar. James Christopher, Palm Dog jurist and Times chief film critic, has been known to wear the collar. It looks cool if you have four legs, more so if you don’t.

This year the franchise expanded with the launch of a British counterpart, the Fidos at The Times BFI London Film Festival, where the Corgis from The Queen seemed to run amok on their little red carpet and take the gong for all-time best performance.

From Rescued by Rover more than a century ago to the gay-and-proud Bruiser in Legally Blonde, no other animal can captivate an audience like a dog. And none is so eminently trainable. What other creature would allow us to primp, pose and make it the vehicle for our sloppiest emotions? Faced with tricky scripting, dogs are downright useful. Can’t find a plausible reason for your character to explain his motives? Talk to the dog. Need comedy? A chihuahua works every time. Or how about cuteness? “Was Frank the singing pug an important plot element in Men In Black II?” the critic Charles Gant asks. “No. But was he the best thing about the movie and hence the main element of the trailer? Oh, yes.”

Dogs have even inspired ambitious attempts to act out world issues and geopolitics, canine-style. The 1982 film White Dog proved to be such a controversial look at racism it remained unreleased for ten years. And when the Soviet Union wanted to lord it over Cold War enemies it made Laika, the film about the dog launched, and left to die, in space.

Now the internet has introduced a new genre of homemade canine cinematic treats; most notably the website where dogs act out their owners’ favourite movies. Rose shakes in horror at the thought of dogs pretending to be people. “They are not people and not fashion accessories. Someone please liberate that dog from Paris Hilton’s handbag.”

The Palm Dog does not trade in trashy sentiment about animals, or cloying Hollywood epics. With a panel of judges that includes the critics Derek Malcolm, Gant and Christopher, Lassie and Beethoven would never make the cut.

“Bear with us!” Rose commanded from the podium moments after the start of the 2007 judging. The projection system had broken down. Soon normal service resumed and The Palm Dog 2007 was awarded jointly to Mid Road Gang, a Thai film about street dogs in Bangkok, and Persepolis, the Iranian animated film now receiving critical acclaim in the UK.

The makers of Persepolis appeared on stage to say how much the award means to them, but before anyone could take this too seriously a Yorkshire terrier Mourinho lifted her head in the first row and barks. Rose found Mourinho walking along the Croisette on holiday with its British owners. Still, wearing a jaunty polkadot sun hat, the dog fielded questions from reporters and appeared to enjoy her day out. Such touches have won over film stars and critics alike, even earning praise from the industry itself. “The Palm Dog meant we got a distribution contract for a film that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen,” says Hamish McAlpine, of Tartan Films, makers of Cave of the Yellow Dog, a tale of dog heroics in Outer Mongolia that won The Palm Dog in 2005. The Palm Dog is listed as a major award on the film’s DVD cover. It looks like the Palme d’Or if you don’t peer closely.

And who wouldn’t list it when Chloë Sevigny is a Palm Dog Goodwill Ambassador, Aki Kaurismäki added the logo to the print of his Palm Dog-winning film Man Without a Past and the film-maker Lars von Trier has the Palm Dog collar tacked to the wall of his Danish studio? Jennifer Jason Leigh won the first Palm Dog in 2001 for her film The Anniversary Party, which starred her own dog Otis. She collected the award and gave it to Otis to wear at home in LA.

At the Fidos the history of The Palm Dog was introduced by a special dog-umentary featuring interviews with the cinema luminaries Sam Mendes, Sienna Miller and a bemused Halle Berry. This year The Palm Dog has reached its pinnacle; it is the subject of a film shown in the short-film corner at Cannes. The producer Rich Balin explains: “We met Toby and he asked us to film on the beach and my wife, who is 57, did splits while we all spelt out PALM DOG cheerleader style. I thought it would make a nice short film.”

With the conclusion of Cannes 2007 Rose moved on to the first year of his new award, the Fidos. There was a fraught run-up, but the Fidos made its inaugural appearance as an official event at the London Film Festival and Rose illustrated his slot in the programme with a photo of his own dog Mutley – a fox terrier and his creative muse. The staff at the National Film Theatre were anxious. There was a nasty fracas at the red-carpet photocall and some vicious biting and jockeying for position. No, it wasn’t Carol Thatcher and Christopher Biggins, who presented the awards, but the corgis who – like their human filmstar counterparts – have a reputation for big egos and short tempers.

Lulu Guinness, the handbag designer, presented the award for Best Historical Hound. Other awards went to Blockbuster Bowser for best dog in an action film, Best Smooching Pooch for rom-com and the Cupcake Cinema award for best dog in short film. When the corgis from The Queen won best overall performance a message was read out from Helen Mirren. “I love those corgis, forget winning an Oscar I’d be more proud to win an award for dog handling.”

Rose is as flamboyant as he sounds. An Englishman at large in France, he supplements work as a journalist with a series of canine-related endeavours. To prove that his life is not entirely consumed by dogs, he has written a musical Discotivity – about the birth of Jesus – that stunned Edinburgh Fringe Festival audiences. It is set for a run in the West End.

Before that, though, there is Cannes 2008 and this year the Palm Dog takes places under a cloud. Rose’s dog Mutley has died. Aged 13, he was put to sleep having hobnobbed at the highest levels of Hollywood. “I’m not going to mention his death until the end or I’ll never get through it,” Rose says. “But this year is his tribute.” He pulls himself together. “Thank heavens for The Palm Dog,” he says. “It’s where the gloomy art-house mindset of Cannes and mad frivolity meet.”

The Palm Dog 2008 takes place on Friday at the UK Film Pavilion, Cannes

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