Cinema sans frontières

In Cannes I once heard a well-known British critic confide to ­another: "If I see another sub­titled film today, I'll kill myself." This week British colleagues told me that the reason I regarded Quentin Tarantino's latest film so highly was because I was French (by French, understand self-important, indulgent, a sucker for grandiose and cinematic references). I had apparently fallen into Tarantino's trap of playing up to the French gallery to increase his chances of winning the Palme d'Or.

Cannes may be the Mount ­Olympus of cinema, yet national and cultural ­prejudices are endemic. If great ­cinema and art, wherever they come from and in whatever accent they are expressed, usually end up winning the ­argument, it's often after an ugly melee of cultural misunderstandings and ­chauvinistic narrow-mindedness. A little like the UN, a little like football.

In the two main Cannes auditoriums, critics often sit in packs that are based not necessarily on friendship or common taste, but on nationality and common language. The Britpack sits on the right; the Italians closer to the screen, bang in the middle; the French behind the Italians, and so on. There are, of course, some sheep that refuse to follow the herd, the free thinkers and snipers of film criticism. And then there are the Colonel Landas of cinema, the rarest and noblest of species.

That I should take a Nazi officer of the worst kind, and the leading character in Tarantino's ­Inglourious Basterds, as the epitome of film critic sans frontières may appear strange. Let me explain. Landa is a ­character, embodied by the actor ­Christoph Waltz, who – by speaking four languages, and understanding the ­misgivings of four cultures – can not only see through everyone he meets, but end the war victorious, even though Germany has lost. He may live the rest of his life with a swastika carved on his brow, but he'll live happily ever after in America. The Landas in the Lumière theatre had no difficulty enjoying Tarantino's film, two-thirds of which is subtitled. Others found its polyglot eclecticism mannerist, too clever for its own good, pretentious. They couldn't stand Tarantino's openness to the world and ouverture d'esprit. They are the real Nazi officers of film criticism.

Cannes is a tower of Babel, and the linguistic misunderstandings are revealing of a more fundamental chasm: cultural differences. Even the best-intentioned are touched by the disease. Celebrity jury members, representing up to 10 nationalities, are often the first to suffer from this plague. Year after year, long after the Palme d'Or has been raised, the stories flood in about how battle lines were drawn: between a politically engaged bunch and a less principled clique; between naturalists and realists; between narrative ayatollahs and plot deconstructivists. Culture always has a political implication. Tarantino, once president of the jury, remembers, perhaps painfully, his vehement co-juror Emmanuelle Béart. That was the year Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 won. The following year Emir Kusturica had to spar with the vocal veteran French director Agnès Varda. As always, we are back at the UN security council.

Those disputes are a rich source of humour. Look at how Italian distributors translate titles, including "heart", "love", "passion" or "woman", whether these words appear in the original or not. French critics joke that if a film has no clear plot à la Agatha Christie, their British and American colleagues feel lost; or fall asleep if scenes are stretched out and aren't edited like an MTV clip. These prejudices may be amusing or even ring partially true, but they shouldn't obstruct the ultimate aim, however flawed and difficult to reach it may seem: a cinematic language that crosses all borders and barriers. In this spirit Cannes, at its best, really is the United Nations of Cinema.

Agnès Poirier