Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994)
Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994) © AFP  /  MIRAMAX / COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

The Cannes Festival's Palmes d’Or: the greatest soundtracks

Chopin, Wagner, but also Alexandre Desplat and Nino Rota: come rediscover some of the greatest soundtracks from the Cannes Film Festival.

Cannes: its actors, its directors, the famous Croisette and its red carpet… Every second week of May since 1946 has seen the opening of the famous Cannes film festival, and the illustrious nominations awarded to various international films. 

Amongst all of the awards, the Palme d’Or represents the highest possible praise, the ultimate recognition for a script, a visual story-telling, and a particular use of music. 

Here are 10 of the greatest soundtracks of films awarded the famous Palme d’Or.

Pulp Fiction

Without a doubt, a cult film. In 1994, the American director Quentin Tarantino was awarded the Palme d’Or for his film Pulp Fiction. A story of gangsters, robberies, assassinations and drug dealing, with a soundtrack full of rock, pop and soul music. 

Amongst these various sounds, one track stands out: Misirlou. This tune with its oriental accents played at lightning speed on one on a single guitar string is a rock'n'roll adaptation of a song originally belonging to the Greek musical repertoire.

Taxi Driver

Perhaps one of the greatest works in cinema history, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was shown in 1976 on the Cannes Croisette. A violent and bloody film, which portrays the nocturnal wanderings in New York of an insomniac taxi driver. 

As for the music, the soundtrack was composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, famed film composer for Alfred Hitchcock, having worked on various cinematic masterpieces including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Herrmann died on 24 December 1975, several months before the release of Taxi Driver: Martin Scorsese thus decided to dedicate the film to the beloved composer.

The Leopard

A return to the past with one of Cannes first Palmes d'Or in the 1960s: the Leopard by Luchino Visconti. This cinematic epic tells the story of the decline of the great Italian aristocracy through the life of a Sicilian prince, Fabrizio Corbera de Salina.

As an accompaniment to the 153 minutes of film, Visconti called upon Nino Rota, the composer and Italian conductor famous for his work with another film director, Federico Fellini

The Piano

A moving story of a woman for whom he piano has become the only means of communication, only capable of expressing herself through music and gestures. The Piano was released in 1993, directed by Jane Campion, the only female director to this day to have been awarded a Palme d’Or.

The music was composed by Michael Nyman, British composer, pianist and musicologist, strongly inspired for his soundtrack by the traditional Scottish musical repertoire.

Apocalypse Now

Set during the Vietnam War, the action follows a secret service unit of the US Army. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a monument of cinematic history, a film widely praised, in particular by the Cannes Festival's Palme d'Or in 1979. 

With Apocalypse Now, Coppola forever associated Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries with the idea of murderous folly, using the extract from the Wagnerian opera during a scene of violent bombardment. 

La Stanza del Figlio [The Son's Room]

La Stanza del Filgio (The Son's Room) is an Italian film directed by Nanni Moretti, awarded the Cannes Palme d’Or in May 2001. Moretti tells the heartbreaking story of a broken family, shaken by the loss of their son. 

The soundtrack to this family drama, soft but terribly nostalgic, was composed by the Italian pianist and conductor Nicola Piovani

Orfeu Negro

One of the very first Palmes d’Or of the Cannes Festival, and the second to be awarded unanimously by the jury: Orfeu Negro, a Franco-Italo-Brazilian film directed by Marcel Camus and released in 1959.

Orfeu Negro is the transposition of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into the 20th century, set during the Rio Carnival. The songs featured have since become part of the Brazilian musical repertoire and even Bossa Nova standards. 

The Tree of Life

A controversial Palme d’Or: The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, released in 2011, profoundly divided critics. Some saw a work of philosophical and poetic proportions, whilst others criticised Malick for being too mystical.

The film's soundtrack however, composed by Alexandre Desplat, left none undecided. The music takes audiences away to a gentle world of dreams and poetry, evoking the peaceful image of a river, the nostalgia of childhood memories and the tranquility of a blue sky.

Various classical works were also added as accompaniment to Terrence Malick's work: Smetana's Moldau, Bach's Fugue in d sharp minor, and  Brahms's Symphony no.4.

The Pianist

One of the principal themes throughout The Pianist directed by Roman Polanski, recipient of the Palme d'Or in 2002, is music. It is the remedy, the life preserver, for the Jewish protagonist Wladek as he tries to survive the Nazi persecution in Warsaw during the Second World War.

The film's soundtrack focuses largely upon the major piano works of the Franco-Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, notably the Mazurka in a minor, the Piano Concerto no.1, and the Nocturne no.20 (whose renewed success is largely due to Polanski's cinematic masterpiece). 

La Dolce Vita

1960. Cannes's Croisette was in uproar following the showing of La Dolce Vita. The press and the world of cinema protested against such debauchery, luxury and worldliness. And yet, Federico Fellini's work has since become a classic, a masterpiece of Italian cinema. 

Against a jazzy background composed by his long-standing musical collaborator Nino Rota, Federico Fellini portrayed the adventures of a gossip magazine journalist: his wild evenings in Rome and his (failed) quest to find love.