Art & alchemy

Filmmakers who have made their mark at Cannes say the festival's peaks often happen when no one's watching

Baz Luhrmann still has vivid memories of the midnight screening of “Strictly Ballroom” at Cannes some 14 years ago. The theater was half full; in Australia, the general consensus was that it was too “theatrical” and therefore had no distributor. It had made it to Cannes only at the last minute.

“Sitting through the screening was excruciating,” says the director. But after it was over, there was an extended standing ovation. The crowd pressed around Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and the rest of their creative team until a French security guard rescued them from the melee. The guard leaned toward Luhrmann and said, “in an accent worthy of Pepe le Pew: ‘Monsieur, your life will never be the same again.’ ”

He was right. More than any other festival — perhaps more than any other industry event — Cannes all but invites such career turning points and peak moments, a reflection of the rarified world along the Cote d’Azur. If their lives don’t change like Luhrmann’s did, few attendees return home without at least a worthy anecdote to share — such as a story about a memorable dinner or chance encounter with a legend or simple amazement at the scene.

To those outside the industry, Cannes legend lives in such stories as the fateful meeting of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, or Madonna showing up to the premiere of “Truth or Dare” in lingerie. Festival regulars’ own choice moments may be less grand, but they are just as lingering. It’s been three years since critic Roger Ebert and director Vincent Gallo sparred after the disastrous screening of “The Brown Bunny,” but it’s doubtful either will live it down anytime soon. (Gallo on Ebert: “A fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.” Ebert: “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.’ “)

The juxtaposition of the superficial and the sublime is lost on few, especially when it comes to the showmanship invested in evening screenings and the closing awards ceremony.

Producer Lawrence Bender, whose “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or in 1994, recalls his first trip to Cannes two years earlier, when he and Quentin Tarantino brought “Reservoir Dogs” to the festival. “We had just come from the L.A. riots, L.A. was burning, basically, and people were shooting,” he says. “You go from this terrible time of rioting in L.A. to the opposite, which is this opulence and beauty with the money and glamour.”

More recently, Bender made the mistake of trying to enter the 2004 screening of “Fahrenheit 9/11” with a white silk tie on his Armani tux complemented by high top sneakers. The guard “points at my tie and won’t let me in. And he points at my sneakers. I try to tell him that is the way Armani says to dress. It doesn’t matter.” Finally, his girlfriend ran and got Harvey Weinstein who convinced the guard that it was OK to let Bender in.

“There is this incredible collision in Cannes between the grotesque and the truly glamorous, which is what gives it its particular alchemy,” says director Atom Egoyan, winner of the Jury Grand Prize in 1997 for “The Sweet Hereafter” and a member of the jury in 1996. “I think it is also the tension of the fact that so many people are watching and can’t participate in it, unlike other festivals. It is not egalitarian by any means. You are really always aware of this kind of hierarchy and there are places you have access to.”

Growing up, Egoyan saw Cannes as a “mythological event,” so he holds special memories of getting his first film in competition, “Exotica,” in 1994.

“That year our son, who was a baby at the time, came with us and we couldn’t bring him to the screening so we left him with a babysitter,” he says. “But the babysitter actually brought him to the event. So as we were walking up and just were bombarded with all of these flashlights and journalists I actually saw this baby in the middle of the crowd, and I picked him up and took him down the red carpet with us. That was an incredibly emotional moment for me.”

When, two years later, Egoyan was invited to serve on the jury under Francis Ford Coppola, he found an entirely new perspective. “There was this weird sensation of going around every event in Cannes that year and having ‘The Ride of the Vakyries’ piping in from some speaker,” he muses, referring to the soundtrack from Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” “It is a mystery to me how that happened, but it became sort of the theme music of the whole jury.”

As exclusive as the Cannes environment is, somehow it affords opportunities for unexpected meetings and chance encounters. As Peter Ustinov once wryly observed, “In a few days, you can meet all the people you must carefully avoid for the rest of the year.”

Director Richard Lester once told the Guardian a tale of serving on the Cannes jury in 1966, when a young man implored him to see a screening of his two small films. But Lester had to watch his four-year-old son. So the young man babysat while Lester saw the movie. As it turned out, the babysitter was Jack Nicholson.

Director Monte Hellman recalls a festival in the mid-1970s in which he and fellow helmers Jerry Schatzberg and Sydney Pollack waited around for Ingmar Bergman to show up. “He never showed up,” Hellman says. “It was kind of like the three of us sitting around waiting for Godot, or whatever.”

Or there was the early afternoon that Hellman went to the Colombd D’Or restaurant — a festival ritual — in the early afternoon and struck up a conversation with Simone Signoret.

“We talked about everything except the movie business,” Hellman says. “It was philosophy, politics, literature. It was one of the most ‘wow’ experiences I have ever had at the festival. She is someone I probably would never have had the opportunity to meet.”

No other Cannes in recent memory, however, inspires quite the lore of 1994, the year that “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or, helping to make Tarantino a household name and underscoring the ’90s indie movement of arthouse pics that attract wide audiences. After their win, the cast and crew stood at the steps to a “wall of lights from the flashing cameras,” Bender recalls. The celebration continued at the Hotel du Cap afterwards.

“Normally they won’t let you there late at night,” says Bender. “Bruce Willis went and got his boombox and brought it down and we all danced in the lobby of the Du Cap until the sun came up.” Something to remember.

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