Fear and Loathing in Cannes

An outsider's diary from Le Festival, where world cinema meets Planet Hollywood

Cannes, France--

Wednesday, May 13

After being awake for 30 straight hours, half of them spent in transit, I arrive at the Cannes Film Festival's bunkerlike Palais des Festivals just in time to hear Martin Scorsese say that he'll "always be indebted to French cinema." Me, I'd be indebted to a warm bed right about now. But the masochist in me--the part that decided to come to Cannes in the first place--wants to see how this year's legendarily obsessive president of the jury will address the world's movie lovers. "The great French New Wave directors [Godard, Truffaut] were particularly valuable to me in the early '60s," Scorsese says, "when they taught me so much about American cinema."

Translator and so-called mistress of ceremonies Isabelle Huppert issues a befuddled "Quoi?"--not knowing how to interpret this sentiment for French-speaking cineastes. Scorsese restates the idea but Huppert's tentative translation still seems to miss his reference to the New Wave auteurs' work as critics. Being a critic myself, I feel grateful for the nod, especially since my second-tier status here means that I'm reviewing this gala kickoff to Cannes on closed-circuit TV.

Thursday, May 14

The quintessentially Hollywoodian Primary Colors succeeds in bringing John Travolta to town (and more photographers than Bill Clinton has seen all month), kicking off a fest that also includes four French and four American movies in competition for the juried Palme d'Or. These big-ticket titles ostensibly help to underwrite one film each from China, Taiwan, Greece, and Russia, none of which has big stars or a fair chance of earning commercial distribution in the U.S. or France. Think of it this way: Each time Travolta gives a wave to the hordes of French kids who clog Cannes's main drag, the Croisette, one national film industry is kept alive for another year--or so it would seem.

As I wrote last year at this time: "The most prestigious film festival in the world is defined by the most extreme contradictions: culture and glamour, art and commerce, sunny beaches and dark theaters, critical debate and crass deal-making, challenging cinema and mainstream product." Yes, and it's also crowded as hell. This year's 12-day marathon--including 22 films in competition, dozens more in various sidebar packages, and several hundred others screened around town for "market" purposes, not to mention the countless parties and "media events"--has drawn 4,000 journalists from around the world. I don't know exactly how many fans, film publicists, and industry bottom feeders are here this time, except to say that it can be extremely time-consuming--when not impossible or dangerous--to walk from one end of the Croisette to the other.

Does the event really need to be this big? Mais oui. From mid- to late-May, this isn't Cannes: It's Planet Hollywood. Everything is outsized, egos not the least. The Palais itself contains 14 theaters as well as an abundance of conference rooms, offices, and floorshow space. Size matters here: Not for nothing has Godzilla been selected as the closing-night film, even though, by any other standard, such a commercial choice is indefensible.

Adding to the competitive vibe, members of the press are judged by their color. Mine is bleu, according to the badge I've been given, which means that I can get into most screenings only after those with les cartes roses (pink badges) have had their way, and then only as long as there are seats remaining. So who gets which color? To put it simply, none of the two or three dozen American critics whose names you might recognize carry a blue badge. Apparently, space at Cannes is slightly less than infinite and if some folks have to be shut out, it won't be them.

This highly polarized situation naturally has the effect of pitting us blue folks against one another, and if you and your aqua-colored competitor don't speak the same language, then the universal one--sneering, shoving, smoking--becomes the default. I'm not kidding: For those of the blue persuasion, these press screenings can be as primal as any school-yard tussle. Cigarettes are sometimes used to mark territory or to fend off persistent space invaders, but I quit smoking three years ago. Now I'm thinking of starting again.

Another popular tactic some blue critics use is to find someone they recognize near the front of the line, strike up a conversation, and cut in front of you. Again, playground rules apply and, as the biggest bullies often don't speak your language, it can be hard to object. Alternately, if you're being crushed in a clump of blue critics and wish to express solidarity with one of the non-English-speaking victims next to you, it helps to know the French phrase "Ca c'ést mal"--meaning "This is bad." Other times, it's best to speak your piece in English--for instance, "Hey, do you mind holding your cigarette down? Because your ash is blowing straight into my eyes"--and hope it registers.

Welcome to the most prestigious film festival in the world. On this particular evening, after I've been in the trenches of the blue-badge line for more than an hour, the stern controleurs in bright blue sport coats and black bow ties teach me the French word for "Back!"--"Reculez!" Tonight's movie is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it resonates. "Intolerable vibrations in this place," says the main character, a shabby-clothed journalist outsider. "The mentality here is so massively atavistic that crimes often pass unnoticed."

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