What's it like to sit on the Competition jury at Cannes' Lee Marshall goes behind the scenes.

When he was president of the Cannes jury in 1953 - a year marked by a row over Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages Of Fear, a political thriller accused of being 'anti-American' - Jean Cocteau confided to his diary: 'I wish festivals didn't hand out prizes and were just a place for exchange and encounter. To preside over the Cannes jury is an experience I won't repeat.'

Next year he was back - as jury president.

Cocteau's 'can't live with them, can't live without them' approach to the Competition awards has been a recurrent theme over the festival's 59 editions. Almost everything has changed over the years - except the consensus that awards are beautiful and damned.

The jury has veered between nine and 12 members and the variety of prizes has varied as much as the number of films in Competition (35 at the first edition, in 1946) with the name of the top prize changing over the years.

The first Palme d'Or was awarded in 1955 to Delbert Mann for his film Marty (still the only title to date to have lifted both the top Cannes award and the Oscar for best film), but the best-film label was changed back to Grand Prix in 1964 and the Palme d'Or was only reinstated in 1975.

Though jury decisions are often criticised as political - the Palme d'Or awarded to Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 is only the latest in a string of controversies - direct political interference was only a possibility in the festival's early years, when jurors were nominated by national governments or film commissions.

'The nonsense that people know in advance - it's crap'
While festival president Gilles Jacob is around during the final discussion, when the jury is cordoned off in a villa outside Cannes, he does not contribute his views.

'The whole received nonsense that people know in advance or that Gilles Jacob nobbles the jury - it's absolute crap,' says Mike Leigh, who was on the jury in 1997. 'We sat there and we really didn't know where we were going to wind up at the beginning of the day.'

Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, who did jury service in 2003, concurs: 'I know for a fact that they were not at all happy that we gave six prizes to just three films [Elephant, Distant and The Barbarian Invasions], but they respected our decision.'

Emir Kusturica, president of the jury in 2005 (pictured above), says: 'There were four or five really good films [in 2005] and I was happy about that.' He also notes that: 'Unlike the Oscars, where someone who has been waiting for the award for 25 years gets it for a pretty bad film, it is very hard to get a Palme d'Or for a film which is not good.'

Both Hong Kong director Tsui Hark and Finnish critic Peter Von Bagh, who were on the jury in 2004 when Quentin Tarantino was president, agree the controversial Palme d'Or for Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 had nothing to do with either outside influences or railroading on Tarantino's part.

Von Bagh explains the near-unanimous decision (with only one juror dissenting) as the natural consequence of 'the modest overall level of the year' and the 'tough and inventive' nature of Moore's documentary, while Hark describes Tarantino as 'energetic, mind-probing and responsible; treating each and every film with equal respect'.

Most jurors appear more troubled by internal jury politics than outside influences. Opera singer Barbara Hendricks, who was on the jury in 1999, the year that Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Rosetta lifted the main award in the face of hot favourite All About My Mother, comments diplomatically: 'I did get the sense that David Cronenberg [that year's president] went in there with something on his mind. I think that if I ever did this again, I would try to work out what the jury president's agenda was, and vote strategically.'

But for all the responsibility heaped on the jury's shoulders, in the end, as Tanovic suggests, it's all about how they feel on the day: 'I always think of 12 Angry Men. Thirty minutes later we might have made a different decision, but that's the way it goes.'

Then there is the sheer enjoyment of going to Cannes without the stress of a film to premiere. 'The best way to be in Cannes is to be on the jury,' says director Costa-Gavras. 'The funniest thing is being able to go and see the movies and getting in very easily. And nobody runs after you.'