Fear and Loathing in Cannes

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

Before the press screening of Tsai's typically minimalist The Hole (one dramatic high point of the first half-hour is a character's cough), the projection booth pipes Sinatra's "For Once in My Life" over the speakers. The first non-Western film in competition and yet Cannes still can't give up the ghost of Ol' Blue Eyes. "For once I can say this is mine, you can't take it," sings Frank, his fighting American spirit still very much alive in these parts.

Monday, May 18

This morning I suffer through a banal and pretentious gay-themed Greek/Aussie Kids called Head On (the title is a pun, I think), then pick up Variety to discover that The Versace Murder is now a movie (with the renowned Franco Nero as the fallen fashion designer and, as the ad says, "introducing Shane Perdue as Andrew Cunanan"). A full-color photo has "Versace" reacting with horror to the sight of a gun pointed in his face, John Woo-style. Just imagine the pitch meeting for this one: "Hey, guys, it's Face/Off meets The Silence of the Lambs and Prêt-à-Porter!"

Elsewhere in the issue, Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein is quoted as saying that Todd Haynes's glam-rock bio-pic Velvet Goldmine--the film I most want to see--"makes Boogie Nights look like Mary Poppins." (I ask a Miramax publicist for an interview with Haynes and get turned down--"but there is a press luncheon on Saturday," she tells me. In other words: a standard-issue junket featuring carefully supervised roundtable interviews--and free lunch--in a fancy hotel.) Variety film critic Todd McCarthy writes that the fest has been a disappointment save for the French La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels)--which, just my luck, I chose to skip in favor of sleep, food, or peace of mind, although I doubt any of these actually came to pass.

The insanity of the daily schedule, the banality of the red-carpet parade, and the inevitability of needing to choose one film over another makes disappointments all the more profound, atrocities all the more hateful. You can spend a sweaty 15 minutes darting from one screening to another, often with 50 pounds of PR material in tow, only to find that the movie is less than you hoped for, or worse. Halfway through the festival and nothing in competition has approached true greatness: Tsai, Loach, and Gilliam fall somewhat short of their best work; Patrice Chereau's Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) is a wildly overwrought melodrama about an extended family whose every member has some sexual "problem" (homosexuality, transvestism, female hysteria); Claude Miller's La classe de neige (The Class Trip) depicts a young boy's Freudian daydreams, but without dreaming much itself; and Roberto Benigni's bizarre, obnoxious Life Is Beautiful turns from a featherweight slapstick comedy into a more upbeat Schindler's List, being perhaps the closest we'll come to seeing Jerry Lewis's notorious and unreleased Holocaust melodrama The Day the Clown Cried.

So tonight I blow off the festival, skipping the evening press screening of Hal Hartley's heinous Henry Fool in favor of a 30-minute train ride to a tiny theater in St. Raphael showing Adrian Lyne's Lolita. I've been anxious to see this movie for more than a year, during which time, as you probably know, the Child Pornography Prevention Act passed Congress (making it illegal to show a minor having sex, even with the use of a body double) and Lyne strained to interest a U.S. distributor before settling for a premiere on pay cable (in August). As Lolita unspools before my eyes, I wonder what it means that much of the film excites me (in a manner of speaking) more than anything at Cannes.

Tuesday, May 19

I'm back "home" in the pressroom: the teeming factory of entertainment news, the customized workplace for dozens of international journalists with gnawed fingernails and bloodshot eyes, and a literal sweatshop for being one of the few rooms in the Palais that isn't climatisé. When it gets too stuffy in here, members of the press can step onto the adjacent patio for a perfect view of the Palais's red steps, where most celebrity action is staged.

As I'm straining to distinguish among the dozen movies I've seen, staring fruitlessly across the Croisette at a hotel-balcony banner touting Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2, I overhear the journalist next to me making desperate calls to England and the States to try to get herself into the epic MTV/Godzilla party at the Majestic Beach. She's calling secretaries for last names of husbands of friends of friends, and gently forcing an American assistant in London to fax MTV in Cannes with a verbose request to get her on the guest list. ("Can you read that back to me? Tell Roger you deserve a raise!") This reminds me too much of my past life as an office temp and so, swallowing still more fear and loathing, I decide to cut my own work short.

The day's anti-Godzilla party is a press-conference symposium with veteran directors of photography Raoul Coutard (who shot many of Godard's early works) and Jack Cardiff (who filmed Michael Powell's Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death, among others). Not surprisingly, the room--one of the festival's smaller theaters, named after critic André Bazin--is maybe a quarter-full or less.

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