Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Cannes-Deed - not by Voltaire (part 1), a reminiscence

by Karen Jaehne

A voyage to the Cannes Film Festival is always wrapped up in expectations and memories like bright shiny ribbons around a package manhandled by the Post Office.

Let's get one thing straight: nobody goes to Cannes for the fun of it. They go for their careers, or for a liaison with someone else whose career is at Cannes. Here they converge in an unholy congress of art and commerce, birth and burial, champagne and sickness, and everybody goes home exhausted. Why, then every May, do we pack our bags, steel our nerves, gird our loins year after year? So we can talk about it later! So we can say we survived yet another pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Cinema.

Cannes was once a beautiful coastal village on the Riviera, wrapping itself around a natural old harbor where fishermen brought in nets full of shrimp, sea bass, mussels, scallops and lobster from up where the coast is rockier. About a hundred years ago, it was discovered by rich people - american idle rich and British aristocrats among them - and fabulous villas were built in the hills above the town. Hotels like wedding cakes were sculptured along the Croisettte, the road that winds by the bay - the Carton, the Majestic, the mirador and, most famous, the haughty Hotel du Cap on the tip of the peninsula. To get there you just follow the main drag, the Croisette. Here Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Stone and sundry lovelies have strolled - careless of their reputations, careful of the camera angles.

When I first went to Cannes, the center of activities was the Palais (pronounced Pal-ay). This "Palace" (for those of you just spiffing up your high school French) resembled an exquisite, old world opera house with graceful staircases curving down from a second tier that looked out across the marble balustrade and through the entryway at a blindingly blue Mediterannean and the glare of glory in the flashes from paparazzi. Jostling each other in breathless excitement on the steps were the cinema elite-pencil-nibbling film critics, Gauloise-puffing directors, cigar-chomping producers and the stars of tomorrow thronging to see what Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola had to offer in the way of visual philosophy.

"Mon dieu," they would say in awe as they filtered out of Antonioni's latest opus. Or "quel dommage" as they came from a failed Fellini. No matter what syllables or which language, each movie was monitored like a feverish patient. Down the steps of the Palais marched the reputations of artists like Andzrej Wajda, Wim Wenders, Woody Allen, Rosselini, Scorsese, Bunuel, Herzog, the Tavianis, get the idea. Directors became known as "auteurs" because these people "authored" their films. Stars were praised too, but at Cannes, the sparkle belonged to the directors who, over the years, have made it their very own playground and only occasionally let friends like Melina Mercouri, Princess Di, or Sting dance their jig.

Cannes rose to its premier position after WWII, and the grand spectacle there every year helped convince the world that it was safe to go back to Europe (as long as you stayed within a stone's throw of the Mediterannean). In 1968, that old bugger Politics formed his menage-a-trois with Art and Biz. Jean-Luc Godard led radical French filmmakers, who stormed the stage of the Palais and held the curtains shut on opening night, demanding....! Uh, demanding....uh... It had something to do with showing the films of these young cinéastes instead of movies by old men.

The Palais, this sacred site, this altar of celluloid religion, became known as the Old Palais in 1984, when a "New Palais" was built. Then the Old Palais was traded in for a Hilton Hotel, and some of us wept. Others just rented rooms at astronomical rates and got on with the business of fame and fortune.

There was a scruffy but pricey, indoor-outdoor cafe next to the Palais, the Blue Bar or Le bar bleu, si'l vous plait. The essence of importance has always been to sit there with friends, indifferent to the gawking crowd, sipping pernot, blasé, legère, chic, with that je-ne-sais-quoi envied by mere mortals. The first person I ever saw managing to do all that - as well as intimidate the gendarmes - was Rainier Werner Fassbinder, swaddled in black leather, punching the air with his fat finger, sharing subversive asides with his pert little blonde buddies in T-shirts that let their muscles ripple in honor of this Teutonic Terror.

Sophisticated critics swapped whispers, then murmured, "Hallo, Rainer," hoping he would not respond. "Arschloch!" he would cry out in whatever language fell off his tongue. "Did you like my movie? Or is your taste still in your a..?" An hour went by and he had been joined by strange motorcycle enthusiasts. Everybody on the Riviera with a tatoo seemed to have heard that there was another German invasion.

A prissy British critic approached me: "You speak German. Would you let them know there's going to be trouble? They're provoking these people." I declined, on the excuse that my German was just not good enough to inform Fassbinder the Krauts had lost the War. When he died of an overdose some weeks later, there were obits, eulogies, tears shed over his genius, but nobody mentioned his riotous irreverence in the shadow of the Palais.

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