ALONG WITH BEING KNOWN FOR THEIR FOOD, wine, fashions, art and films, the French long cultivated a reputation as the rudest hosts as far as tourists were concerned. With an air of infinite self-satisfaction, the French positively wallowed in the knowledge that they had the best culture and most beautiful capital city on Earth (an attitude I observed early on, since my grandmother was born there). Because of this, they were resigned to tolerating the flood of lowlifes from other countries who came to marvel at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and to mangle their language as they attempted to order a steak au poivre avec frites or buy some timbres pour une carte postale aux Etats-Unis.
But whereas 30 years ago few shopkeepers or waiters would deign to speak anything but French, the intervening years have seen the conquest of France by McDonald’s, rap music and, most recently, computers and the Internet. France essentially missed out on the 1990s due to its phobia of (English-dominated) high-tech, and its anti-entrepreneurial financial and bankruptcy laws, some of which have finally been relaxed. And with the franc sailing south of seven to the dollar, the French have been forced to become rather more accommodating to the visitors they once so openly disdained.
The difference is clearly seen at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival. As impossible as it might have seemed years ago, Cannes has become an essentially English-language event. Four of the five significant daily journals published during the festival are in English, public announcements and printed bulletins are released in French and English, French translation of English-lingo press conferences and interviews almost seems like an unnecessary formality, and fest staff just about all speak English, a necessary bow to the overwhelming numbers of American and British media on hand.
Although it’s been some years that foreign-language films at Cannes have tended to sport English as well as French subtitles, the practice has become institutionalized with the addition of computerized English translation that runs on a special strip installed underneath the screen in all the fest’s official salles. For starters, this development has abolished the need for annoying and sometimes woefully inadequate voice translation over headphones (which at Cannes often added unintentional humor when the prim-sounding British female translators were confronted with crude vulgarities and tried to resort to decorous literary euphemisms). It’s also reassuring to festgoers with no French vocabulary at all, which would seem to represent the vast majority on the evidence of the outcry that erupted when I witnessed the English subtitles getting out of sync with the French during a Japanese film.
Obliged to swallow their pride on the linguistic front, the French have been forced to find another outlet for their rudeness, and this year’s fest clearly revealed where it is: audience behavior. Because of the influx of agents, executives and producers in the early ’90s, the Sundance Film Festival was the first to gain a reputation for audience members chatting away on their cell phones before and even during screenings. But when the fest laid down a zero-tolerance attitude toward this nuisance, it soon abated.
As if trying to make up for lost time, viewers in Cannes this year outdid anything I’ve ever observed at Sundance or elsewhere. The sound of ringing cell phones resounded through the Palais at every screening. The public reaction was usually that uniquely French-sounding hooting and whistling you sometimes hear at the end of particularly bad films at Cannes, but the amazing thing was that the ringing persisted. You can understand that an industryite who’s accustomed to leaving a phone on at all times might forget to switch it off upon entering a screening, but you’d think that the uproar greeting the initial offense would remind him or her to turn it off quickly so as to avoid becoming the next target of derision.
But no, people just left them on, and the obnoxious audio accompaniment continued. On more than one occasion, people sitting next to me actually received calls and chatted during an official Competition screening, and continued for a short time even after I gave them the evil eye (of course, I can’t swear these individuals were actually French, but they were speaking it). A Daily Variety colleague was sitting in the Palais in front of a gold-chain-bedecked Frenchman who persisted in yacking away on a succession of calls. Repeated complaints resulted in an escalation of insults that culminated in multiple exchanges of “F.U.s” and, before he stormed out of the salle, some distinctly personal insults hurled by the Frenchman at my colleague’s suitability for being allowed to attend such a rarefied and hallowed event.
My own favorite incident didn’t involve cell phones but, with very little refinement, could have been developed into a routine worthy of Laurel and Hardy. Not long into a dreary Russian film at the Palais, a Brazilian friend of mine sitting in front and just to the right of me turned around to tell the Frenchman to my immediate right to stop kicking his seat, which he had been doing the entire time. Undeterred, the Frenchman continued, and perhaps even accelerated, his dance on the seatback in front of him, which of course occasioned even more heated complaints. When the Frenchman refused to desist, the Brazilian rose, and I honestly thought I was about to have the best seat at a heavyweight prizefight. But no, my friend determinedly made his way across to the aisle, forcing more than 20 people to stand up and as many seats to flop noisily about in inimitable Palais fashion. He then edged down the row behind the Frenchman, again disturbing a score of viewers, sat down in the empty seat directly in back of the restless fellow and commenced kicking away with abandon. I once again imagined that a fistfight would ensue, but no, the Frenchman quickly got up, lurched along to the aisle himself and found a dreadful seat at the far edge of the second row. Score one for Brazil.
After all of this, I wondered why I had come all the way to France to see movies when I can find just as much audience participation at home in any American mall multiplex.