28 May 2005

Cannes-Do Attitude

Thanks to Nate Goodman, a friend since Brown, I found myself at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005. For years, I’d avoided the Riviera altogether: too crowded, too expensive. But as soon as my high-speed train slowed down at Marseilles and began to creep along the coastline, I realized I’d made a mistake — the countryside is gorgeous, and every time I looked out the window, I’d see a Cézanne, a Renoir, a Matisse. The sea is as blue as the stained glass at Chartres, and the hillsides and mountains were decorated with wildflowers and almost unbearably cute houses. And the crowds were manageable, although afterward Paris seemed downright empty, a “populous desert,” as Violetta describes it.

I stopped over in Nice the night before meeting Nate’s plane, discovering that this is the second-largest English-speaking city in Europe (after Amsterdam). It was impossible to stop people from preemptively speaking English, a tiresome stunt that even the snootiest Parisians no longer attempt with me. The exception was a tourist from Dallas, who was seated next to me at dinner. She was taking an immersion course in French and wanted to practice — and brother, she needed it! A direct appeal to my teaching instincts. At the end of the meal, she said goodbye, and when the waiter brought my check — guess who was expected to pay for her supper? Here at last my French proved useful in Nice, and I successfully talked my way out of getting stuck with her bill. (Her game was so flawless that it’s impossible to tell whether she intended to con me or simply forgot to pay her own way.)

Nate arrived the next morning, and we drove to Cannes, about half an hour away. Because we’d decided so late that we were coming, the best (that is, the only) hotel Nate could find was in Mougins, up the hillside from the city proper, in a roadside motel overlooking the freeway. Not picturesque at all. Somewhere beyond lies what’s reputedly a beautiful town, full of four- and five-star restaurants, but we never saw any of it. Nate went into warp speed almost immediately, never showing the slightest hint of jet lag, constantly on the go, switching between English and Italian as needed. Whenever he wasn’t taking a meeting to discuss his movie, we were roaming up and down the main drag, the Croisette, hoping to bump into other people with whom he could talk. (This proved excellent strategy.) It helps that Nate’s script is so personal and true — he cries when he recounts the plot, and his listeners often do, as well. This isn’t merely his first break as a writer/director, it’s a project dear to his heart, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Sunday, our first day, was Star Wars day: the Croisette was jammed with fans in costume, the city’s public-address system (presumably the one used to announce German invasions) blared excerpts from the soundtrack and, between musical numbers, Darth Vader’s heavy breathing; and the original movie was played on a giant screen at the beach that night. Since I have refused to acknowledge the existence of Episodes I and II, I was able to brush aside reports that Episode III was worth seeing. Monday was Pentecost, which until this year was a French holiday and the second four-day weekend in a row; this year the government is taking away the holiday, so we had strikes and demonstrations, and the police were in riot gear that looked suspiciously like the costumes of the imperial storm troopers.

We met up with Nate’s producers, Robbie and Ellen Little, who have all kinds of distinguished credits and are genuinely nice people. Ellen told wonderful stories, including some real gems about how she kept the peace between Julie Taymor and Anthony Hopkins on the set of Titus. Really, I was surprised by how many nice people we met. I’d been expecting nothing but sharks, but maybe they’re all swimming with the studios — because the “independents” were great. They’re bright, interesting people who just love movies. When we arrived, Ellen was having lunch with Edoardo Ponti, the son of Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren, who’s now a director, and he too turned out to be cool, even picking up the tab at dinner with Nate and me. (That’s the sort of gesture I haven’t much seen among the children of the rich and famous.)

With the modern beachfront architecture, expensive shops and restaurants, and English-only conversations about nothing nothing nothing but movies, you’d have sworn you were in Hollywood. Socially, however, we were in pre-revolutionary France, as the royals (movie stars) are driven through streets choked with screaming mobs (the fans); the rest of us fit into an elaborate system divided by sometimes subtle gradations, fiercely defending our privileges, from producers, directors, distributors, backers, publicists, journalists, starlets — to pishers like me.

Thanks to the Littles, I was able to get credentials sufficient to get me access where needed, and I saw three movies: the Brazilian Movies, Aspirin and Vultures, a very good buddy picture set in the wilderness, with WWII looming in the background, though I never figured out where the vultures came in; François Ozon’s Time Remaining, the best thing he’s done, substance over style, and yet somehow shallow nevertheless; and To Paint or Make Love, an empty comedy that couldn’t be salvaged even by its stars, Sabine Azéma and Daniel Auteuil. This last movie, however, was screened as part of the festival competition, which meant that Nate and I got to walk up the Palais steps, with their famous red carpet — changed three times a day, to guarantee that it’s constantly fresh and ready for its next photo op.

We never stopped running into people from Brown, from those whom we expected to see (Rachel Rosen, now program director of the LA Film Festival; Christine Vachon, the producer) to the thoroughly unexpected (Jared Seide, whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years at least).

The festival would’ve felt like one of the Big Events I used to attend for CBS (political conventions, the Hong Kong Handover), but for the preponderance of celebrities ... and the clothes. Wild fashions, some chic, some hilarious, and anybody with breasts was letting ’em hang out (that goes for the six-foot-five transsexual “masseuse” who chatted me up in the Majestic lobby). No question, Cannes is Boob Paradise.

Celebrity sightings included actors Matt Dillon, Aurélien Wijk, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; directors Ozon, Stephen Frears, and Jim Jarmusch; playwright Sam Shepard; actress Betsy Blair (married to and divorced from Gene Kelly, blacklisted, co-star of Marty); pop object Kid Rock; producer Harvey Weinstein; musician and Brazil’s minister of culture Gilberto Gil. Probably a lot of other names I’d know, but crossing the lobby of the Majestic was like eating in the cafeteria at the Metropolitan Opera, where I frequently couldn’t recognize even favorite singers out of costume.

Nate’s friend Alexander Payne, a director who just won his second screenwriting Oscar (for Sideways), was president of the jury for the Un Certain Regard competition, but found time to have dinner with us one night and drinks the next. He’s executive producer of Nate’s movie, and Nate is also trying to get him interested in my most recent novel. (Alexander’s interest proved useful to Tom Perrotta, whose first novel, Election, was the basis of Alexander’s second movie. Tom was the best friend at Yale of my best friend from high school: the circles are running rings around each other.)

Since Sideways is set in the Napa Valley, Alexander is now deferred to on all matters oenophilial — and people keep sending him wine and more wine. This is quite a pleasant outcome, and Alexander is by no means unhappy about it. Nate and I are going to have to have a very serious conversation about product placement in his movie; there’s already a good chance of my getting some opera records out of it, provided anybody ever makes opera records again.

The last two nights in Cannes, we got no more than eight hours sleep. It took weeks to recover. We ate well, but seldom in restaurants that featured much in the way of local cuisine — which is why I returned to the house at Beynes to make a big ol’ pot of ratatouille and a damn fine pissaladière.