The Steps of the Palais

An appropriate choice to screen at the 50th Cannes Film Festival, "The Steps of the Palais" is a sendup of the fest's zanier side. It's basically a filmed record of the popular stage show of the same name by writer-thesp Philippe Caubere, a long monologue recounting his experiences at Cannes back in the late '70s. Caubere's shows tend to do brisk business in Paris, and there's a specialty audience on his home turf for his films. But "The Steps of the Palais" will be virtually incomprehensible to anyone outside France, overflowing as it is with the sort of ultra-wordy Gallic humor that does not travel well.

An appropriate choice to screen at the 50th Cannes Film Festival, “The Steps of the Palais” is a sendup of the fest’s zanier side. It’s basically a filmed record of the popular stage show of the same name by writer-thesp Philippe Caubere, a long monologue recounting his experiences at Cannes back in the late ’70s. Caubere’s shows tend to do brisk business in Paris, and there’s a specialty audience on his home turf for his films. But “The Steps of the Palais” will be virtually incomprehensible to anyone outside France, overflowing as it is with the sort of ultra-wordy Gallic humor that does not travel well.

Pic, directed by Bernard Dartigues, is the third feature in a planned 11-pic memoir of Caubere’s life as an actor. First two installments have already played in France over the past year.

Standing alone onstage, Caubere spends just under 2 1/2 hours chatting about his less-than-pleasant trip to the Cannes festival back in 1977, with a film called “Moliere,” in which he starred. He runs through everything that happened to him at the event, in painstaking detail. In the lengthy monologue, the actor who plays Moliere is named Ferdinand, and he’s sharing a room in Cannes with his g.f., Clemence, and his pal Jean-Claude. The tale features all kinds of outlandish characters, all depicted in caricature form by Caubere, including the obnoxious producer of the film, the over- excited publicist, the crazed photographers and the mimes on the Croisette.

The Cannes trip gets off on the wrong foot when the first press screening of “Moliere” goes badly and Ferdinand has to endure interviews with journalists who make clear their negative feelings about the pic. Then comes the photo shoot, with the photogs forcing him to strike one goofy pose after another.

Caubere is an exceptionally charismatic performer, and his ability to portray a wide variety of characters is impressive. Decked out in formal white shirt, dinner jacket and jeans, Caubere is a manic bundle of energy onstage as he re-enacts much of the action in the stories he’s telling. But the fast-paced, nonstop verbal wordplay becomes exhausting, and Dartigues’ minimalist direction offers little added entertainment value.

Helmer has shot the stage show in fairly static fashion, relying on Caubere’s text and performance to carry the pic. Caubere is shot in front of a stark black backdrop, and, over the course of the pic, the lighting goes from near-darkness to bright, flashing beams of light. Soundtrack is equally pared-down: There are some strange sound effects after around 90 minutes and a bit of classical music toward the end. In the final section, Dartigues suddenly turns the camera on the theater audience after focusing exclusively on Caubere for the majority of the film.

The Steps of the Palais

(FRENCH)

Production: A La Comedie Nouvelle production. (International sales: La Comedie Nouvelle, Paris.) Produced by Veronique Coquet. Directed by Bernard Dartigues. Screenplay, Philippe Caubere.

Crew: Camera (color), Pascal Caubere; editor, Dartigues, Philippe Caubere; art direction, Sophie Comtet; associate producers, Jacqueline Dartigues, Fredric Comtet. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 15, 1997. Running time: 145 MIN.

With: With: Philippe Caubere.

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