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."

Friday, May 15

Alienated outsiderdom is fast emerging as a theme at this festival. The first film of the morning is Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe--as in "My name is Joe and I'm an alcoholic." Hi, Joe.

Per Loach (Land and Freedom), the protagonist (Peter Mullan) is an Everyman representing larger struggles, but here they're personal, as Joe quits the sauce and courts a sweet social worker (Louise Goodall) while still struggling to control his temper. The film deftly approximates the man's mounting rage with a slow-burn plot that gradually becomes a showdown between Joe and the local mob. It's perhaps a minor Loach work, but the character rings true.

Later that afternoon, the outsider of the Australian Dance Me to My Song--a woman with severe cerebral palsy, played by a woman (Heather Rose) in the same condition--takes me by complete surprise. Knowing only the title and that the film was directed by one Rolf de Heer, I arrive about 30 seconds late and spend most of the opening-credit sequence climbing the balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière (a grand theater indeed). The one credit I do catch reads, "A Film by Heather Rose"--which makes me think I'm watching a short before Heer's main feature. But it proceeds for a hundred minutes, rendering in truly harrowing detail the life of Julia (Rose) as she struggles to communicate by computerized voice box, outsmart her horribly cruel nanny (Joey Kennedy), and, in her spare time, win the hand of a nice guy named Eddie (John Brumpton).

Heer's unflinching direction notwithstanding, this is indeed "a film by Heather Rose," who not only gives a fierce performance but also co-wrote this love-triangle variation on her life story. The near-10-minute standing ovation given to Rose--who was seated in the audience in her wheelchair--bodes well in commercial terms for a film that could tap some of the same real-life underdog appeal as Shine. On the other hand, perhaps it would be better if Rose wasn't embraced by Planet Hollywood.

Back at Palais des Festivals headquarters, the closed-caption monitors are running a live broadcast of the Fear and Loathing press conference (happening in the flesh about 50 yards away, in a roomful of video-camera operators and pink-badged reporters). Watching this spectacle on TV, I'm startled (and disturbed) by how completely the star power of actor Johnny Depp and director Terry Gilliam encourages me to devour the entire show--just as I'm supposed to. Sporting a south-of-the-border tan and mustachio to match, Depp responds with undue charm to deep questions about his Method actor bald spot in the role of Hunter S. Thompson and his degree of personal research into pot, mescaline, and LSD. "Johnny, what's the most endearing quality of Cannes?" asks a starstruck French writer. "Um," Depp says sarcastically, "Hollywood's invasion of it."

Saturday, May 16

Today, I'm happy--at least for a while. It's my first-ever visit to the Director's Fortnight, the anti-Cannes offshoot that Godard and Truffaut started in May of 1968 in protest of the main festival's bourgeois politics. Befitting this critically minded sideshow, journalists are taken from a separate line (no discrimination by color, either!) and gently escorted down a wide, white hallway to their seats in a spacious, state-of-the-art screening room. I'm once again struck by the festival's split personality: From hour to hour, I don't know whether to feel elated or exploited, savored or shat upon. At least for the moment, things are good.

The film is Todd Solondz's follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse, called Happiness--an ironic/sarcastic title if ever there was one. Like Dollhouse, only more so, this film depicts (or delivers?) an endless amount of fear and loathing under the guise of the blackest comedy: One character, a clean-cut and conservative suburban father (Dylan Baker), recalls a cathartic dream about gunning down random strangers in a park, then, wide awake, goes to his car and jerks off to a teen magazine. In terms of how it appears on-screen, the perverted trick this father pulls on his preteen son's overnight guest is nothing compared to Solondz's shock-tactic denouement in which a mother (Cynthia Stevenson) ends up tasting her boy's first ejaculate.

To an extent, one appreciates the director's view that America is sick, suburbia is polluted, most men are sickos, some women are mean and pathetic, and all children are victims. But then what? Solondz successfully beats the viewer into submission--and so the cycle of abuse continues.

Sunday, May 17

Blue-badge skirmishes aside, the war between the foreign art-cinema battalion and Disney's PR foot soldiers rages on. Today's battle seems to pit Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang (Vive L'Amour) against Mr. Showbiz, Frank Sinatra. The latter's body is barely cold, but in faraway Cannes his death is hot. (My favorite headline came from the French Liberation: "Frank Sinatra est mort: Doo bee doo bee doo.")

In the pressroom, which is ground zero for infotainment explosions, the English-speaking journalist next to me is on the phone describing her mandate to a colleague: "They're still keen on Sinatra and they want more." Later the journalist calls her editor and explains that she has quotes from Cannes celebrities on the subject of Frank. Indeed, Scorsese's 50-word official statement--"Words cannot express my sadness..."--has been available in Xerox form on just about every table counter in the Palais. (And now, I guess I'm getting mileage out of it, too.)

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.

Coutard confesses that Breathless seemed nothing special when he was shooting it. Cardiff asserts that the current crop of new directors ("these film-school kids who've seen everything") tend to tell the cinematographers exactly what they want, minimizing the craftsman's input, whereas Hitchcock or King Vidor would simply say, "Jack, I want a feeling of sadness here," and turn him loose. A gorgeous five-minute clip from Life and Death--the scene in which David Niven's RAF pilot prepares to jump out of a fiery plane without a chute--makes me wonder if Cardiff's theory is correct, because nothing I've seen in the fest has come close to achieving its beautifully surreal Technicolor glow.

Tonight is the press screening of one of the most challenging films in the festival, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flowers of Shanghai, a snail-paced portrait of brothel life in late 19th-century Shanghai, shot in static tableaux, like a filmed play. At least a quarter of the audience walks out before it's over--perhaps trailing the media monster's footprints down to the beach.

Wednesday, May 20

At long last, lé cinema. Lars von Trier's Idioterne (The Idiots) proposes an odd solution to alienation, following a group of beautiful young nomads who go around impersonating retarded people as a rebellious means of raw self-expression and subcultural fraternizing. Put it this way: If Emily Watson's fragile Bess from von Trier's Breaking the Waves had joined these fun-loving folks to "find her inner idiot," she probably wouldn't have needed to give herself to God. Although The Idiots is the uncredited second film in von Trier's newly formed cinema collective (his name isn't on it), this is unmistakably the work of the man who made Waves--the same aesthetic mix of jump cuts, seasick camera work, and washed-out colors capturing the metaphoric story of people too delicate for this world, fighting to assert themselves amid the powers that be.

Leave it to Lodge Kerrigan, director of the bleak Amerindie Clean, Shaven, to return us to the land of the lost. Kerrigan's Claire Dolan is a tightly controlled, nearly suffocating investigation of the life of a New York prostitute (Katrin Cartlidge) who struggles to put some distance between herself and her manipulative pimp (Colm Meaney), enlisting the aid of a scruffy cab driver (Vincent D'Onofrio) to give her love and then father her child. The theme all around is control, and Kerrigan certainly proves the master of his own domain. At the post-screening press conference (which, again, I saw on TV), the youngish auteur broods impeccably, stares at his water glass, answers tersely, and musters no charm whatsoever, generally looking like a guy who doesn't get out much. After a week of nothing but screenings, I believe I know how that feels.

At this point, I'm so bitter about my blue badge and browbeaten by the hassle it brings that the mere sight of a pink card is enough to inspire, um, fear and loathing. Even Russia's relatively obscure Khroustaliov, ma voiture! (Khroustaliov, My Car!) requires the blues to arrive early, just in case. Meanwhile, one imagines that pink-card holders are happily sipping cold beer at a cafe until a few minutes before showtime. Here come two of them now: "Oh well, we're kind of early," one says to her friend, casting a glance in our direction.

Thursday, May 21

Halfway through actor-director John Turturro's boring Illuminata, I bolt, just barely making it into a market screening of the buzz movie in competition, La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels). Even though I watch from a cramped and cross-legged position on the floor of a tiny room, this incisive study of the shifting relationship between two young French women (Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier) is riveting for seeming as real as any doc. (Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution yesterday, meaning it may appear in our town before year's end.)

At noon, I check out a panel discussion sponsored by Variety and the Excite! search engine on the state of film criticism, hoping it might cure what ails me. This urgent summit in Variety's tentlike "pavilion" (free Heineken, co-sponsored by RAI International) has been called in the wake of David Denby's recent rant in The New Yorker about why people don't love the "right" movies, and by a more substantive panel discussion that took place last year at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Roger Ebert gets this swingin' party started by asserting that "the world of film is in disarray and chaos." It's dominated by marketing, he says, resulting in the fact that audiences only go to the movies that the PR people tell them to. (The direction of his own thumb seems to have no influence--and despite the fact that Godzilla, so I've heard, features a mayor named "Ebert" who's the arbiter of size matters.) He recounts a story--a chilling one, if you're in this profession--about an unnamed critic who was recently fired from a major daily. Seems the editor felt his critic's tastes didn't reflect the readers'. "If I walk by a restaurant," the editor mused, "and it's packed with people who like it, I expect my critic to write a positive review." Naturally, the critic demurred: "But what if the food isn't any good?" Boss Man: "If people like it, it is good."

Variety's gainfully employed Todd McCarthy lends the voice of reason, reminding the infinitesimal audience that the film critic's doomsaying is at least as old as Pauline Kael. Ebert laments the loss of campus film societies as a means of audience education but, in nearly the same breath, puts in a good word for the Landmark Corporation's arthouse chain and its repertoire of mostly proven hits. French critic Michel Ciment (the journal Positif) mentions that last year's quartet of Cannes award-winners (Taste of Cherry, The Eel, The Sweet Hereafter, and Happy Together) earned hardly any money in commercial release, but that this hasn't stopped people from coming to the festival. Indeed, as mass-released "alternative" fare like Good Will Hunting continues to make foreign art cinema an iffy prospect anywhere, the film cognoscenti visits festivals at any cost because surprises at home are few and far between.

In other words, for critics who'd rather seek hidden treasures once in a while than spend 52 weeks a year helping to announce whatever Harvey Weinstein and Co. considers a sound investment, the film festival has become the last, best arthouse. But since that arthouse isn't open to the general public, reporting on it is to risk irrelevance or loss of employment--which only makes the situation worse. Probably the only reason to continue practicing film criticism is the naive hope that, every so often, what you write has some microscopic influence on widening the range of available product. And if not, well, there's always Miramax's fall lineup.

Friday, May 22

Speaking of said lineup, every once in a while the former indie company's clout lands a Velvet Goldmine--that is, a film by a smart, iconoclastic, politically minded director, designed expressly to subvert the status quo of visual, narrative, and sexual representation. Or so would say Todd Haynes groupies, whose ranks have grown considerably since the director's masterfully ironic Safe risked commercial failure in 1995.

Thus, Haynes's hugely ambitious glitter-rock epic struts into competition today carrying a lavender-colored feather boa in one hand and the Miramax logo in the other--and, on top of it all, the heaviest of critical expectations. The film's opening title seeks to settle us all down: "Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume." The word "fiction" is key, as Haynes stacks layer after layer of flamboyant artifice atop stardust memories of the queer youth culture's yearning for "ch-ch-ch-changes"--precisely the project of glam rock itself. Ewan McGregor plays rocker Curt Wild as a teasing mix of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed; the svelte Jonathan Rhys Myers plays omnisexual icon Brian Slade as an ever-evolving amalgam of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Oscar Wilde; and Christian Bale plays the '80s-era reporter assigned to discover what happened to citizen Slade (as in Citizen Kane), and to the '70s spirit of personal, sexual, and artistic experimentation.

The investors were probably thrilled to hear that they'd be getting something like Citizen Kane meets Boogie Nights and Performance. But the role-playing of the filmmaker and his actors is so extravagantly complex--and the style so tantalizingly opaque--that not even the publicists' "meet the talent" press luncheon could spoil the mystery of this goldmine's Rosebud...

Saturday, May 23

...try as they might. As I and a half-dozen other critics are busy devouring various unnamed delicacies, seated around a table in the Carlton Hotel's hoity-toity banquet room, a thoroughly undelightful publicist asks one among us, an alt-weekly reporter from St. Louis, to switch tables--"because we have a lot of talent coming through." (Said talent, including Haynes, isn't due for another 15 minutes, but a full set of microphones is required immediately at each future stop on the stars' whirlwind roundtable tour.) "Can't I wait until I finish eating?" the critic humbly inquires. "You can just walk your plate over there," Miss Miramax replies, gesturing toward the hinterlands.

So what did Todd Haynes have to say, you ask? Well, the studio, hoping to maximize their goldmine, naturally prefers to have all "publicity" appear at the time of a film's release. Loose lips sink ships.

Sunday, May 24

About 30 of us gather in front of the Trinitron outside the pressroom to scribble down the names of the award winners. Befitting the varied tastes of its president, the jury spreads the trophies around. Haynes takes the Prix de Meilleure Contribution Artistique (Best Artistic Contribution), thanking Oscar Wilde and Roxy Music "for giving us so much to aspire to." Hal Hartley wins the screenplay prize for Henry Fool; John Boorman is awarded Best Director for The General, his so-so bio-pic of Irish thief Martin Cahill; Peter Mullan takes the actor's prize for My Name Is Joe; Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, the young women from La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels), split the Best Actress award; Roberto Benigni gets the Grand Prix for Life Is Beautiful (and proceeds to kneel at Scorsese's feet--an Italian thing, you see, allusions to the Holocaust being no longer required); and the top-prize Palme D'Or goes to Theo Angelopoulos for Eternity and a Day--which seemed to last about that long.

Now that the serious side of Cannes is fini, I'm headed for the Grand Théâtre Lumière to battle the crowds for Godzilla--which I could have done at the Mall of America. As the French would say, "Plus ca change..." My plane doesn't leave for two more days, but in a way--in the biggest way--I'm already home.

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