War stories from Cannes

Vets tell worst fest tales

You’ve got your accreditation, your formal wear, enough business cards to paper the Cote d’Azur. You’re going to the Cannes Film Festival! What could possibly go wrong?

Sure, there’s been a time or two when directors couldn’t get into their own screenings because the guards enforced the ‘Sorry, we’re full’ rule, but ask just a few fest vets to come up with stories from their worst Cannes, and there are tales aplenty — from the bizarre to the downright dangerous.

Chicago Intl. Film Festival founder and director Michael Kutza, on his third Cannes visit in 1968, recalls getting stuck in the student strikes. “All hell broke loose. Smoke bombs, small fires, speeches (all in French) about the closing of the festival, the stopping of the trains, the taxis, the planes … the closing of Cannes! It was terrifying. I was in a real-life horror movie, with no way out.”

Kutza heard that at 5 a.m., for 30 minutes, a ship would be docking outside of Cannes on its way to Genoa, Italy.

“I didn’t know where that was, but wanted out of Cannes. I remember loading up on sea-sickness pills, because I had never been on a ship, and I passed out till Genoa. The ship was called the Da Vinci.”

French film critic Nadia Meflah was dancing with joyous abandon at a party after Arnaud Desplechin’s competition film “Esther Kahn” was shown in 2000. “I was having a great time when suddenly I saw Desplechin racing toward me across the room,” Meflah recalls. “He grabbed me and started pounding on my scalp.”

“The room was lit with candles but only when the smell of my burned hair hit my nostrils did I realize what was going on,” says Meflah, a member of this year’s selection committee for Critics Week. “Desplechin was very sweet — when the flames were out he bowed and kissed my hand as if smothering fires with his bare hands was all in a day’s work for an auteur.”

Many Cannes attendees covet a moment in the spotlight but Barbara Dent, films manager for the British Council in Paris, could have done without hers.

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana graced the 40th Cannes fest in 1987, Dent’s responsibilities included filtering guests for an intimate VIP cocktail on a terrace on the fourth floor of the Palais des Festivals. “The terrace was covered with a tent strapped to metal arms, lit by rows of spotlights,” says Dent. It was also a windy evening. “I saw a flash of white light and thought to myself, ‘Somebody’s going to get hurt.’ When I came to, I was on the ground and Roger Moore was applying ice cubes to my forehead.”

A bank of three lights had bounced off that very forehead. Dent had a concussion but continues to makes the trek to the fest without trepidation.

David Robinson, former film critic for the Times of London, was walking on a cloud after the 1960 Cannes premiere of “La Dolce Vita” only to return to his hotel room “to find every last one of my then-meager possessions had been stolen. But the film had been so wonderful that somehow the tradeoff seemed worth it.” (Robinson now programs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival)

Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder and prexy of Troma Entertainment, first came to Cannes in 1971 with “Sugar Cookies,” which he describes as “a lesbian-themed homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo.’ ”

“I only had enough money to pay for the screenings of ‘Sugar Cookies’ and my airfare; I did not have the money for a hotel,” Kaufman explains. “So the 35mm print of ‘Sugar Cookies’ and I slept on the beach.”

Kaufman found the Carlton Hotel restrooms handy for his daily ablutions. Troma would later go on to rent a suite at the hotel, holding court for 25 years until the exuberant promoters of “The Toxic Avenger” and “Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD” were asked not to come back after 2001.

“Also, that year,” says Kaufman of 1971, “Yorum Globus and I leafleted cars and put stickers on lamp posts, dogs, etc., to promote our respective films. Today, Globus is a kabillionaire; I am still putting leaflets on cars and stickering French poodles.”

Don’t worry, Lloyd. If this summer’s shoot of “Poultrygeist: Attack of the Chicken Zombies!” goes well, 2006 may be your best Cannes ever.