Film Scouts Diaries

2002 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
The Days of Fun and Roses

by Henri Béhar

Cannes, France, May 14, 2002 -- As you know, unless you spent the last twelve months in a cave, the 55th edition of the Cannes Film Festival is about to start. The "smarter" set came a few days earlier, as usual. Their luck was mixed. The beaches were empty -- for it didn't just rain, it poured nonstop for three days -- the hotels and the bars were crowded, and so where the cafes without which there is no cultural life in France.

On Sunday night, everything changed. Gone were those that had come from the long weekend -- early May here is full of them -- and since the festival-goers had not arrived yet, the town went back to its quiet, slow-paced, normal self. For five minutes. Then it started filling up with trucks, construction workers, not to mention extra security and humongous bodyguards. Because of September 11, because of various social troubles throughout Europe, and because of the last presidential elections, everyone seems to be, if not tense, at least extra cautious. One needs a special pass to get into the Press Pass Office which for the first time is outside the Palais. Actually, the Festival itself has expanded westward; all along the old harbor, tents and TV studios have sprung overnight, giving "festival land" the dubious allure of a faux nomad village akin to that Malcolm Forbes had erected for his birthday in… was it Morocco ?

Anyway, as of tomorrow, a hundred films a day will be shown in all sections -- in competition, out of competition (with Woody Allen's ''Hollywood Ending'' the cheerful festival opener and George Lucas's ''Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones'' the first of several midnight treats), in the Certain Regard (with an oddity called "Ten Minutes Later" directed by, are you ready for this?, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Chen Kaige, Spike Lee, Aki Kaurismaki, Werner Herzog and Victor Erice), in the Directors Fortnight, in the Critics' Week, at the Marché, in every single nook and cranny, hell, on every single VCR one can find in Cannes and beyond.

The best films of the year, they say. And probably the most serious. Indeed, David Cronenberg's "Spider" deals with schizophrenia, Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" deals with the Armenian genocide (but not only that), French films deal with sex, violence and computers (but not only that), movies from Israel, Palestine, the Middle East and North Africa deal with guess what. No wonder over the years the festival had acquired the reputation of being perhaps a tad too serious.

With that in mind, the festival honchos - president Gilles Jacob, general delegates Thierry Frémaux and Veronique Cayla - decided to bring the 'feast' back into the festival and at the same time open it widely to Cannes audiences and beyond. If anything, the tributes set the tone: Alain Resnais ("Last Year in Marienbad," "I Love You, I Love You") will be honored, as well as Raj Kapoor (the "Prince of Bollywood") and Paul Morrissey whose trilogy "Flesh-Trash-Heat", made under the aegis of and in collaboration with Andy Warhol, defined a special kind of New York independent filmmaking. Before showing twenty minutes of "The Gangs of New York" (the most awaited promo reel on the planet), Martin Scorsese will pay tribute to the late and oh-so-sorely- missed Billy Wilder.

It is another tribute, however, that will mark the festival this year, an homage for which the organizers (and the City of Cannes) went all out, turning one of the public beaches into a gigantic open air theatre with a huge screen hanging afloat right above the sea. The occasion: the screening of Jacques Tati's "Playtime" in its director's cut for the first time since it came out, before everybody and their mothers started tinkering with it. Famous mostly for "Jour de fête", "My Uncle" and "Mr. Hulot's Vacation" (which will all be shown), Jacques Tati was considered the equal of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, although, as he once said, "I am exactly the opposite. Way back when, the comedian used to come in saying, 'I'm the funny guy, I can sing, I can dance, I can juggle, I can do it all.' Hulot is exactly the opposite: he is just a man. All he does is walk through offices or department stores… he's just life."

But first and foremost, we will be invited to (re-)discover the films that were selected for the festival that never was. The year was 1939, several films had been chosen to compete in the event that was to take place in Cannes in early September, the films had already reached Cannes, the stars - Mae West, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power and his wife Annabella - were already on the Croisette, the cathedral of Notre-Dame had been rebuilt on one of the beaches because Charles Laughton's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" was to be shown - and was shown - but then Adolf Hitler decided otherwise.

Strange as it may sound, the 1939 Festival WILL happen. A special jury has been gathered that will give a special award to the then-competing works. And what a selection! Victor Fleming's "Wizard of Oz," Sam Wood's "Goodbye Mister Chips," Zoltan Korda's "Four Feathers," Cecil B. DeMille's "Pacific Express," along with a very long Russian documentary titled "Lenin in 1918" and a Dutch thriller directed by Dietlef Sierk, who was yet to become Douglas Sirk.

Moreover, as of this 55th edition, the Festival plans to (annually) pay tribute to studios and institutions - the Museum of Modern Art in New York, UCLA, the British Film Institute, Studio Canal Plus -- that year in year out work to restore the masterpieces of times past: hence the unveiling of more-pristine-than-DVD prints of Blake Edwards' "Days of Wine and Roses", Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's "Singing in the Rain," Sidney Lumet's "Fail Safe," William Wyler's "Best Years of Our Lives", Michelangelo Antonioni's "Donna Senza Camelie," Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter," and Hong Kong's "Drink With Me" by King Hu, the filmmaker without whom - ask Ang Lee - there would be no Crouching Tiger and no Sleeping Dragon..

And you know what? However good the films in this year's "regular" competition, you cannot help thinking that those were the true days of fun and roses. Before cinema became a heavy industry, and junkets the exercice in power and disinformation that they are today. A time when Judy Garland, Robert Donat, Greer Garson and Barbara Stanwyck were accessible and came to the Festival also to see films, not just to hole up at the Hotel du Cap behind an army of PRs. And you suddenly realize, My God, those films may have been difficult to make, but they make it all look so easy, so charming, so lively - and so bold! - that you fall in love all over again with filmmakers and actors and… and cinema. The very reason why we all got into the business in the first place.

Or maybe I am just an old fart.

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