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Cinema Rivierité

When it comes to the movies, those who Cannes do.

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By SARA LODGE
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Cinema Rivierité

For twelve days in May, if cinema is your business or your passion, there is only one place to be. 

The city of Cannes on the south coast of France has, since 1946, played host to a film festival that is also a marketplace where some 60 percent of international business in the film industry is annually accomplished. Like the mass migration of wildebeest across the plains of the Serengeti, or the flight of hundreds of pink flamingos across the salt marshes of the Camargue, the descent of 10,000 filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, distributors, sales agents, actors, financiers, and studio executives, together with 4,000 press, and another 100,000 wannabes, cinéastes, partygoers, and star-spotters, is one of the great spectacles and curiosities of the natural world. 

Life is one long promenade: and so is Cannes. The town is dominated by a wide seafront boulevard, the Croisette, which curves like an Oscar-winner’s smile from the pass-controlled Palais des Festivals, with its long, red-carpeted steps, to the public Cinéma de la Plage, an open-air arena that screens free classics. Crowded even at two in the morning, the Croisette is a fashion runway, a nightspot, a circus, a grandstand from which the curious peer into beach bars like Terrazza Martini, where, perhaps, the cast of Oliver Stone’s new movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Michael Douglas, Carey Mulligan) are holding a private party. 

This is a human safari. You will see no more than a leopard skin dress disappearing into a glade of cameras, a herd of newsmen being pursued by a traffic cop, the blond mane of a cinematic lion stalking across a savannah of red carpet. But the crowds are fascinated. The very elusiveness of the game is its attraction. And since nobody can be quite sure who is who in this crush, it’s open to anyone to walk like a giraffe (high heels, big sunglasses) or play the puma (tuxedo, black shirt, big sunglasses) as they pass the palms, the panhandlers, the panpipe players, the Grand Hotel, and the glittering shopfronts of Balenciaga, Prada, and Christian Lacroix.

In the window of Balenciaga at Cannes, I spotted a glorious dress: black, with a low neckline and layers of ruffle descending from hip to floor. On close inspection, you could see that each ruffle was edged with the open teeth of a hundred zippers. And that dress is the spirit of Cannes: froth with bite. For the festival is a desperate round of parties, where the trappings of entertainment conceal frustration, hunger, and cutthroat competition. For the tourist, the safari is glamorous; for the creatures who live in the film jungle, it is a place of frantic courtship, struggle, and narrow odds of survival.

The strange thing, to a newcomer, is that many people who come to the Film Festival barely see a film while they are here. In fact, the number of films in the Grand Jury Competition—which, like Napoleon, is mercurial, political, and short—never reaches much above 20. Of course, there are many side events, with screenings taking place all over town, but the slimness of the Official Selection is telling. The Palais des Festivals embodies the French view of film as high art: a medium worthy of government sponsorship, select presentation, and serious cultural discussion. 

If, however, with your festival pass, you walk through the Palais, with its screening rooms named after Debussy and Buñuel, you discover that what lies behind it is the Film Market: the low commercial underbelly to the high art façade of Cannes. The Film Market consists of hundreds of stalls devoted to particular production companies, all busily touting their wares (“Action, Samurai, Erotic!” as one Japanese firm proclaimed). Behind it is the “International Village,” a long row of shiny white tents inhabited by the National Film Board of every country from Lithuania to Egypt. It is behind the Palais that the real scramble to gamble occurs. Most of the people here are looking for tax-sheltered investment in film as a high risk, high return product. They don’t give a damn about art.

Beyond the International Village is the marina, where the celebrity yachts are docked. I saw Jean-Claude Van Damme’s unobtrusive little craft, which has a stuffed lion on the deck and looks as if it could, in an emergency, evacuate the entire population of Belgium. I saw a bronzed Italian actor clad in only swimming trunks and sunglasses, leap aboard a yacht called Low Profile, accompanied by six suitcase-bearing minders. However, many of the vast and shiny cruisers seemed unattended. It occurred to me that it would be easy to slip aboard and stow away: Hide in a cupboard and come out with your script at night and make the captain and (film) crew read it. This is known as movie piracy.

For cinéastes, the Film Market is fun. I enjoyed finding dreadful posters for films that very few people may ever see.  Among the more intriguing offerings were Gothic & Lolita Psycho, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, I Sell the Dead, and Dino Mom. I went to a pitching competition. Contestants drop five euros into the hat for the chance to pitch their film to an industry panel: The first in line have two minutes, the last have only 30 seconds. Watching was fascinating, and painful. Despite their brevity, pitches were often both confusing and dull, and I began to understand why top film industry figures are as hard to reach as Mars.

“It’s a mystery-comedy,” said one aspiring director. (I visualized a man walking into a room, saying “knock, knock, who’s there,” raising an eyebrow, and leaving.) A Saudi woman pitched a movie in which a suburban mother goes into the desert to look for a pink elephant. Remarkably, she finds one wholly without the aid of gin. The winner was a film about Guy Fawkes: “Fundamentalist religion, terrorism, bombs: We love it,” the panel enthused.

I saw two films in the Official Selection that embody the best and worst of Cannes. The first was A Screaming Man, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, from war-torn Chad. This is a patient movie, which draws the viewer inexorably into a conflict that is both personal and national. A father is the lifeguard at a hotel pool; he loses his job to his son and, through straitened circumstances, but perhaps also through jealousy, stops paying off the local recruitment sergeant whom he has been bribing not to press his son into the army. The son is dragged off to the front line; his pregnant girlfriend appears and begs the family for help. So the father, racked by guilt, goes to the battlefield to try and find his injured son and bring him home. The ending is devastating and tragic.

This small-scale Oedipal drama encapsulates the losses of a whole country. At the end, the 2,000-strong audience rose as one and gave the filmmakers a ten-minute standing ovation. This kind of film eloquently makes the case for the eclectic, cultural, and international focus of the movie menu showcased at Cannes.

 The second movie was Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, from Iran. A self-indulgent romantic comedy that was neither romantic nor funny, it followed a middle-aged lecturer in art history and a middle-aged gallery owner as they drove around Tuscany and exchanged dreary conversations about whether a fake could be as good as an original and whether, after fifteen years of marriage, a couple had anything left to share. There was nothing about the empty, awkward, and meandering dialogue that was more profound than the kind of late-night spat between loveless partners that you can see in any bar, on any night, in any city, for free. By the end of the press screening, journalists were hanging over the velvet seats in attitudes of grotesque boredom and despair, like gargoyles from a church roof.

Amazingly, Juliette Binoche won a Best Actress award for her role in this film; she used the platform to demand the release of an imprisoned Iranian director. A Certified Copy eloquently conveys the problems of the Cannes menu which, determined to champion a certain cultural and political agenda, and certain favored practitioners, can be willfully blind to the (flawed but frank) wisdom of popular taste.

On my last day, I met up with some childhood friends who were here to sell a movie. Their competition-winning trailer—for Nitrate, a thriller—was screening alongside two others in the U.K. Film Council tent, so I went along to see them. One was a thriller set inside a shipping container in which there was an unhappy man, a ticking watch, and menacing drums. What they were doing in the container, however, was wholly opaque. Another was a thriller set inside a submarine, in which there were many unhappy men, mysterious bangs, and menacing drums. Even the director, however, was forced to admit that he had yet to decide exactly what the bang-producing monster was. 

My friends’ film has a plot. It features a movie director who is trying to finish the last film of a legendary Russian director, Yuri Gadyukin, but is drawn into a web of mystery, danger, and deception. The crowd liked Nitrate but the sales agents were cautious. They knew what to do with container-based dramas; they felt less certain about movies that weren’t set in a can. It was tempting to conclude that it is the container rather than the content, the genre rather than the story, which sells a film. 

“Let’s go to Belgium,” I suggested to my friends after the back-slapping and hand-wringing was over, “they have free beer there.” Luckily, Belgium (at least the Belgian Film Council tent) was only five minutes’ walk away. Journalists at Cannes spend mush of their daze traveling from news to booze, which is tactfully distributed by those countries and companies that seek media coverage. So we traveled to Belgium, whence we could see another party, across the picket fence, in Bulgaria. After a brief tour of Europe, we ended up on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, where hundreds of people in evening dress who hadn’t managed to gatecrash their party of choice, knocked back 15-euro gin and tonics and sat on plastic sofas under the stars plotting their next mov(i)e. 

Cannes isn’t what it was. Many people felt 2010 was a lackluster festival. A sixtysomething producer wearing a great deal of make-up was wistful: “In the old days, bands like The Pogues came to Cannes just to party. People let their hair down. What happened in Cannes, stayed in Cannes. Now what happens in Cannes goes on Facebook.” Back then, you could see Robert De Niro each morning, collecting croissants from his favorite boulangerie. Back then, when the pornography festival and the film festival occurred simultaneously, topless models frolicked on the beach. Those were days of low security and high rollers. 

Now Cannes is cannier. Money comes here, but it sticks close and is heavily guarded. Getting it to meet your project is hard. For the aspiring writer-directors who proliferate here, the odds against getting a film funded make the life of the lemming seem comparatively secure. Yet each year, by a miracle of nature, new lemmings and new films emerge. 

“I don’t want to be rich,” one of my friends said with beer-flavored earnestness. “I just want to make movies!” I raised my glass to the moon and made a generous cinematic wish, as generations of Cannesistas have done before me.

“You will,” I murmured, “you will.”

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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