Postmodernist Film Wins at Cannes

After winning the Palme d’Or for Best Film at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Pulp Fiction was launched toward critical and popular success, becoming one of the most influential films of the 1990’s and affirming writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s status as a major talent.

Summary of Event

After the showing of his first film as both writer and director, Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs (film) (1992), at the Sundance Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino was acclaimed by many as a filmmaker of great potential. The violent, offbeat crime drama became a hit with both critics and audiences, creating considerable anticipation for Tarantino’s second film. Pulp Fiction had its first public showing at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 1994, and the response from journalists, critics, and those in the film industry was tremendous. While Reservoir Dogs tweaks some of the conventions of crime films, Pulp Fiction takes a more aggressively postmodern approach to its subject matter. Pulp Fiction (film)
Motion pictures;Pulp Fiction
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Quentin Tarantino[Tarantino]
[kw]Postmodernist Film Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes (May 23, 1994)
[kw]Film Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes, Postmodernist (May 23, 1994)
[kw]Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes, Postmodernist Film (May 23, 1994)
[kw]Cannes, Postmodernist Film Pulp Fiction Wins at (May 23, 1994)
Pulp Fiction (film)
Motion pictures;Pulp Fiction
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Quentin Tarantino[Tarantino]
[g]North America;May 23, 1994: Postmodernist Film Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes[08890]
[g]United States;May 23, 1994: Postmodernist Film Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes[08890]
[c]Motion pictures and video;May 23, 1994: Postmodernist Film Pulp Fiction Wins at Cannes[08890]
Tarantino, Quentin
Avary, Roger
Jackson, Samuel L.
Thurman, Uma
Travolta, John
Willis, Bruce

Tarantino said that he and cowriter Roger Avary intended to take clichéd plots and turn them inside out. As the title indicates, Pulp Fiction is a tribute to the pulp magazines of the 1920’s-1950’s. The film does not offer a linear narrative but three separate yet interrelated stories, as well as two brief introductory tales, as might have been found in such early publications as Black Mask and Strange Detective Mysteries and later pulps featuring such writers as David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and Cornell Woolrich.

Pulp Fiction is packed with homages, particularly to American crime films and the films noir of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In the first story, mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) requests that hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) take his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), to dinner while Marsellus is out of town. The dangers of being attracted to the boss’s wife can be seen in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), from James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. In the second story, boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) takes off after double-crossing Marsellus by not throwing a fight—as in The Set-Up (1949). In the third story, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent have a cleanup problem after Vincent accidentally shoots a young hoodlum in their car—a reference to the body-disposal scene in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990). Jules and Vincent resemble the comical but dangerous hitmen from The Killers (1946), and the young couple (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) attempting to rob the diner at the beginning and end of the film recall the couples in Gun Crazy (1950) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Tarantino not only paid homage to his predecessors but also played with the narrative form. For instance, major characters in one story are minor figures in another. More significantly, the film is nonlinear, with the events in the third story taking place before those of the second. It is a shock to see Butch kill Vincent in the second story only for him to be “resurrected” in the third, adding considerable irony to the film’s conclusion.

Pulp Fiction contains elements of black comedy, as when Vincent saves Mia from a drug overdose by plunging a hypodermic needle into her heart and when, in a flashback, an Air Force captain (Christopher Walken) tells young Butch how he and the boy’s father protected a watch, a family heirloom, during seven years in a North Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp by inserting it into their rectums. The film’s considerable violence, profanity, and drug use is balanced by its highly regarded dialogue. Tarantino’s characters often talk about anything other than the issues confronting them, with food and drink a particular favorite: gourmet coffee, an expensive milk shake, and the name the French give McDonald’s quarter-pounders.

In addition to numerous allusions to other films, Pulp Fiction includes frequent popular culture references, notably to the television series Happy Days (1974-1984) and Kung Fu (1972-1975), whose star, David Carradine, later appeared in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). The sound track includes songs by Chuck Berry, Neil Diamond, Al Green, Ricky Nelson, and Dusty Springfield, as well as surf-rock instrumentals by Dick Dale and Link Wray that helped to revive interest in this rock genre.

All these elements converge to make Pulp Fiction a highly original film, one of the bloodiest comedies ever made. The ten-person Cannes jury, headed by Clint Eastwood Eastwood, Clint and including Catherine Deneuve, awarded the film the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, over such formidable competition as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois couleurs: Rouge, Yimou Zhang’s Huozhe (To Live), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Utomlyonnye solntsem (Burnt by the Sun), Abbas Kiarostami’s Zire darakhatan zeyton (Through the Olive Trees), Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy.

It was not unusual for an American film to win the Palme d’Or. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), and the Coens’ Barton Fink (1991) had won recently in consecutive years, but Pulp Fiction became a bigger critical and commercial success than these films. Explaining why Tarantino’s “uproariously vulgar concoction” won, David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that Pulp Fiction moved like no other Cannes entry, making people laugh, cry, and shiver.

Both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics gave Pulp Fiction their awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay; the film was also named Best Film of 1994 by the National Society of Film Critics. The film won the British Academy Films Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Italy’s David di Donatello Awards for Best Foreign Film and Best Foreign Actor (Travolta), and Independent Spirit Awards Independent Spirit Awards for Best Film, Director, Screenplay, and Actor (Jackson). Pulp Fiction was nominated for seven Academy Awards Academy Awards;Best Screenplay but won only for Best Original Screenplay. Other Oscar nominations for the film were Best Actor (Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Thurman), Best Editing (Sally Menke), Best Director, and Best Picture; Forrest Gump won in the Best Picture category that year.


Pulp Fiction resurrected Travolta’s sagging career, gave a considerable boost to Willis’s, and helped make stars of Jackson and Thurman. It also confirmed that Tarantino could live up to the promise he showed with Reservoir Dogs, establishing him as a major filmmaker. Pulp Fiction also inspired other screenwriters and directors to try to emulate his dialogue, humor, popular culture allusions, and approach to violence.

Films clearly inspired by Pulp Fiction include Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Lucky Number Slevin (2006), and Smokin’ Aces (2006). The only film in subsequent years that came close to having the impact of Pulp Fiction was Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), which won an Academy Award for Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay. Pulp Fiction (film)
Motion pictures;Pulp Fiction
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Quentin Tarantino[Tarantino]

Further Reading

  • Bernard, Jami. Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. One of the first books about the director reports on the making of Pulp Fiction. Eight pages of photographs.
  • Dawson, Jeff. Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool. New York: Applause, 2000. Overview of Tarantino’s life and career based on interviews with the director and those who worked with him.
  • Page, Edwin. Quintissential Tarantino: The Films of Quentin Tarantino. New York: Marion Boyars, 2005. Informative guide to Tarantino’s films analyzes his themes and style and identifies the films that influenced his work.
  • Smith, Jim. Tarantino. New York: Virgin Books, 2005. Detailed analysis of Pulp Fiction places it within the context of Tarantino’s other works and the films that influenced him.
  • Tarantino, Quentin. Quentin Tarantino: Interviews. Edited by Gerald Peary. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Collection of twenty-two interviews conducted between 1992 and 1997 by journalists and critics, including Peter Biskind and J. Hoberman. Eight pages of photographs.

Happy Days Exemplifies Escapist Television

Violent Action-Adventure Television Series Flourish

Female Directors Attain Prominence

Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success