Owen Gleiberman’s Top 5 Memories From the Cannes Film Festival

Variety's new chief film critic looks back at the show-stopping event

I‘ve had countless good times at Cannes (watching Jean-Luc Godard toy with press questions like a highbrow executioner, hanging out with a what-am-I-doing-here? Howard Stern), but here are the five peak experiences that have stayed with me the most:

(1) Meeting Mark Wahlberg in the Majestic Hotel bar.
It was early in his screen career, just after his breakthrough role in “Fear” (the 1996 stalker thriller that co-starred Reese Witherspoon), and he thanked me for singling out his performance in my review. He was dressed in a conservative cream-colored suit and dark tie, and I noticed how small he seemed: just about my height (5-foot-7), without any overt Calvin Klein- poster muscle bulk. The most striking thing about him, though, was his meticulous boy-next-door politeness. He was so not Marky Mark that I thought, “This little chat is the best acting I’ve seen him do.” I knew right then that he was going to be a star.

(2) Watching director Abbas Kiarostami accept the Palme d’Or for “Taste of Cherry.” The lionization of Kiarostami at Cannes in 1997 was an epiphany for Iranian cinema, and the film itself, an often wordless act of lyrical despair, was a triumph of neorealist empathy–a portrait of those who have no words for their pain. Yet when the director, in high-style wraparound shades, strolled down the aisle to a standing ovation, it was a little like seeing an award for “The Bicycle Thief” being accepted by Robert Evans. That’s Cannes (and always has been, going back to the new wave ‘60s): a place where even the most profound humanists are glam.

(3) The first time I ever saw the red carpet ceremony at the Palais.
I don’t remember most of the bold-face names (Frances McDormand was one, and so was Holly Hunter), but it almost didn’t matter, because what bowled me over was the way the ritual of celebrity became, in Cannes, nearly sacred in its formality, the actors so patterned that they might have been part of a slow-motion marching band, with no pesky interviewers on hand to break the spell–nothing to interrupt the gravely tingly ritual of stardom, in which mere mortals become gods.

(4) Coming out of the world premiere of Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter.”
When you see a great movie at the world’s greatest film festival, it’s more than a discovery. Suddenly you know, on the deepest level, why you’re there–why everyone is there. I sat in the balcony of the Palais watching Egoyan’s masterpiece about a terrifying bus accident, a sin of incest, and the karmic way that secrets ripple out into a community, and as I ambled down the two flights of stairs after the film ended, I felt literally dizzy–dazed with belief at what a movie could be.

(5) Seeing Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” get booed and cheered at the same time.
The haters lined up to jeer Daniels’ sweat-soaked Deep South pulp drama of depravity and indolence and murder, but I thought they went way overboard, and so, apparently, did some of the audience–it was a little like the divided reaction after the O.J. Simpson verdict. Getting booed at Cannes is, of course, a venerable tradition (think Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” think Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”), yet to get booed and cheered at the same time is the all-too-rare quintessence of Cannes: a mark of how cinema passion and cinema outrage are never too far away from each other.

Pictured above: Mark Wahlberg and Alyssa Milano after the 1996 premiere of “Fear” in Cannes, France. 

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