The prestigious Golden Lion was first introduced at Venice Film Festival in 1949, becoming the first and therefore most highly sought after prize given to any European film at that time (the Cannes Palme D’Or was introduced in 1955). The first film to win the award was Manon (Henri-Georges Clouzot) setting the bar high for all future entries, and marking France as the nation which would go on to win the majority of the awards – to date, 14 French films have won the Golden Lion, more than any other nation.
We have picked our favourite 10 of the 54 winners:
#1 Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)
Although popular in native Japan, Kurosawa’s films had been largely unknown to the West. Rashomon was a surprise hit at Venice, and was subsequently released in Europe and North America. It tells the story of the discovery of a murdered samurai from 4 perspectives – that of a Bandit, the samurai’s wife, the samurai and a woodcutter.
#2 Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Renais, 1961)
This frustratingly ambiguous film from Alain Renais was released during the surrealist movement and so divided critics, with surrealist Jacques Brunius saying: “Marienbad is the greatest film ever made” and film critic Pauline Kael remarking that it was a “no-fun party for non-people”. The film is set in a chateau at Marienbad (Czech Republic), where a group of friends have gathered for a party. A man approaches a woman and claims they have met before. She can’t remember. Their conversations are replayed in various places around the chateau and grounds like a kind of dream. Their relationship remains unclear until the end.
#3 Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Delving further into the surrealist movement was Bunuel, whose first film in colour, Belle de Jour, became his most successful. It tells of a beautiful housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who is unable to be intimate with her husband and so secretly visits a brothel and works as a prostitute. She becomes involved with a gangster, and he threatens to tell her husband of her indiscretion.
#4 Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)
Before Into The Wild, there was Vagabond, about a woman living freely in France, hitchhiking, camping, taking odd jobs and meeting other vagabonds along the way. Its french title is “Sans toit ni loi” meaning “without roof nor law”. It is considered one of Varda’s greatest feminist works for its de-fetishisation of the female body.
#5 Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)
Blue is the first film of the Three Colours Trilogy, and with the other colours White (1994) and Red (1994) they make up the French flag and ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The film is about the widow of a famous composer who attempts to finish one of her husband’s compositions.
#6 The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)
In 2010 Panahi was given a 20-year ban on filmmaking by the Iranian government. Since then he has continued to make outstanding films (despite being under house arrest) and has smuggled them out of the country by whatever means necessary. In 2011 he made ‘This is Not a Film’ which was sent to Cannes on a USB stick hidden inside a cake. This year, his film Closed Curtain showed at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Silver Bear. Before being persecuted for his art, Panahi was an influential player in the Iranian New Wave, and his films have won numerous international awards – The White Balloon (Palme D’Or) The Mirror (Golden Leopard) and Offside (Silver Bear). The Circle shows a series of interconnected stories about the hardship of everyday life for women in Iran.
#7 The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002)
Peter Mullan’s second film after ‘Orphans’ tells of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, where women who were declared ‘fallen’ (who had children out of wedlock etc) were sent by their families. It was a workhouse run by nuns where women were subjected to daily physical and mental abuse to repent for their sins. Peter Mullan said he made the film to highlight the atrocities: “It was initially because it was unfinished. They hadn’t received any recognition, they hadn’t received any compensation, and they hadn’t been given an apology. And they remained devout Catholics. So initially, it was as a means to get their story in the public domain.”
#8 Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)
Vera Drake tells of a woman (Imelda Staunton) who performs illegal abortions during WW2. After one of her patients nearly dies, Vera is arrested and jailed. In addition to winning the Golden Lion at Venice, the film was also nominated for 3 Academy Awards and won 3 Baftas for Best Director, Best Actress and Costume Design.
#9 Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
On its release, Brokeback Mountain quickly became the most successful bisexual romance film of all time and is still the 12th highest grossing romance of all time. The film won 3 Oscars (out of 8 nominations) and 3 Baftas. Its depiction of the complex relationship between men in the American West has been hailed as a groundbreaking achievement for sexual equality.
#10 The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Mickey Rourke plays an ageing professional wrestler called Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson who tries to cling on to the success of his heyday despite failing health. He starts a relationship with a stripper and tries to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter. Hulk Hogan was initially offered the part of Randy, but Rourke, who worked as a professional boxer for years, was applauded for his performance and won a Golden Globe, a Bafta and an Oscar nomination.