Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #1: Death in the Afternoon

by Lisa Nesselson

May 7, 1996

The sleek nose cone of our spiffy orange TGV (the French initials for what translates as "Very Fast Train") was streaked with clashing traces of red -- a literally gory memento mori. The hundreds of passengers aboard TGV 845, which was to have been direct from Paris to Cannes, were very much stopped in their tracks. Roughly five hours into the six hour trip, the conductor had unwittingly obliged a suicide by mowing him down in the middle of nowhere.

I was in car number 8 -- publicist Joyce Pierpoline and assistant Richard Lorman, in car 15, say they felt a distinct "bump" and that we came to a halt soon after. The view out the window was bucolic enough. Little did we know that just a few feet beneath our pane of glass with its pleated gray curtain were traces of pulverized human flesh, clinging to the aerodynamic body work that is the pride and joy of French railroad engineering.

Since this is France, passengers began hypothesizing that yet another strike was about to interfere with their vacation plans. (To strike is a civil right; to vacation is a holy rite.) After a 25 minute delay, a man's voice on the loudspeaker apologized for the setback due to "an accident involving a person." The French are fierce in their love of animals, a trait that is inculcated early. Hence the little boy who remarked, "Mommy, I was worried a moo-cow got a boo-boo." I half-expected Mom to say "No, honey, it was only a man."

"It doesn't take much to look both ways before you cross the tracks," mumbled the elderly woman in the seat behind me. "There isn't always sufficient warning when a train is coming," observed the equally elderly woman across the aisle.

"That's not necessarily what happened," said an older man nearby. "Out here, you can bet it was deliberate."

We chugged along for 30 minutes or so, and passengers began taking down their luggage for the only scheduled stop before Cannes: St. Raphael. But, no, this was an undistinguished outpost called Carnoule.

The voice on the loudspeaker was back: "Ladies and gentlemen, due to an accident involving a person -- a fatal accident, alas -- this train will go no further. All passengers must disembark here and cross the tracks, where another train will complete the trip. We apologize for the inconvenience."

The mean age in my car was 80, if it was a day, and every seat was taken. The grumble quotient shot off the scale as baggage-laden passengers schlepped through the aisles toward the door. We all thought we'd been very clever reserving a direct train instead of having to change at Marseilles. Well, now we were changing in Carnoule.

Joyce and Richard had ten ultra-heavy bags between them, crammed full of press-kits and formal wear, and there wasn't a porter or luggage cart in all of Carnoule. Only Richard's little dog could be lifted without immediate strain to the cardio-vascular system. As we trudged along the quai, wearing the expressions of hopeful refugees promised passage to the New World only to find themselves hijacked to brothels or factories in the Orient, I spotted a sweet French publicist named Karine.

As storm clouds massed overhead (the preferred location for clouds), we were directed to pass in front of the killer nose cone, dragging our bags across the slotted wooden foot-bridge that couldn't have been more problematic if it had come from the folks at Mephistopheles Gateways.

There was something chastening about the sight of so many senior citizens -- some with canes -- headed for spas along the Riviera to tend to their aching bones, being held up in their attenuated journey toward The Inevitable by a lone figure who had decided to give The Inevitable a diesel-fueled assist. But those of us who had not yet shuffled off our mortal coils were peeved -- and, worse, wet.

For, on cosmic cue, a cold rain barreled down with an insistence akin to the TGV slicing through the Gallic countryside. Little old ladies broke out the de rigeur clear plastic bonnets that apparently materialize under one's pillow the night of one's 65th birthday--like dollars for teeth at age five, as we huddled on the opposite quai. Then, just to make certain that those of us who were merely rumpled and put-upon got an upgrade to bedraggled, heaven's BB gun took aim and the rain changed to hail. We were hail fellows, apparently, woe met.

I was so busy snapping on my Gore-Tex hood and compulsively counting and recounting my four pieces of luggage ("suitcase, laptop, briefcase, duffel") -- since, like all harried film critics, I'd been up most of the previous night trying to catch up on reviewing duties -- that it slipped my mind that I was carrying a perfectly good folding umbrella on the outside of my trusty Land's End bag. I gave the umbrella to a grateful Karine.

About ten minutes later, a regular old choo-choo chugged into the station and stopped about 15 yards short of where we and many others were standing, soaked. "Keep going! Move up!" we shouted to the dry conductor. "I can't. They instructed me to stop here," he called back with one of those shrugs that says "I've abdicated my brain for the day, please try and work with me anyway."

Another schlep-a-thon ensued, as the human contents of a very fast, very long train scrambled for room on a not so fast, not so long train. Elderly women who had donned their Sunday best for a Tuesday journey, had to hike their skirts above their thighs to negotiate the rude metal steps as they boarded.

Karine and I stood in a vestibule (where, I rationalized, my admirable forbearance throughout now permitted me to face forward though my assigned seating had been facing backwards) with two men from Marseilles who assured us that people "throw themselves at the TGV all the time."

"Define 'all the time'," Karine and I asked in unison, horrified.

"You'd be surprised," answered the man. "The papers never talk about it. They hush it up. If you really want to do yourself in, the best way is to jump from a trestle bridge just as the TGV slams through." He illustrated with the International two stage Man-Going-Splat gesture.

Nervous survivor humor began spreading through the train as we assessed our level of inconvenience and decided that it was better to be high on life albeit wet and late, than reduced to plasma stains on the side of a train. "Poor guy," said one wag, referring to the self-dispatched. "He found out he only got a blue badge." Blue is the least useful level of Festival accreditation.

"If he killed himself over having AIDS, you may have been exposed," suggested a man who had actually been minding his own business waiting for the local train, when a mass exodus of Parisians broke his trance. "The air in the train is sucked in from the outside, you know."

"That's a good idea for a movie," Karine and I chirped in professional unison.

"I pity the poor guy who was driving the train," said the man from Marseilles. He's spooked. He doesn't want to finish the run."

Wouldn't it be easier to switch conductors than to evacuate all the passengers, I wondered? Then I fell into a mini-reverie about my own growing sang-Freud.

"Sure," said the answer man, "but you have to be specially trained to drive the TGV. Nobody around here knows how. The closest qualified driver is probably in Marseilles," several hours behind us.

Helas, one woman had lost an earring in the fray. Several others had snapped the handles on their luggage. As our soul train pulled out of the station (no doubt just minutes ahead of Yahweh looking for first-borns), I stared at the remaining red streaks along the engine of TGV 845.

Eighty-eight minutes after our scheduled arrival, we pulled into Cannes. I'd just die if I couldn't come to the festival.

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