Film Scouts Diaries

1997 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Day 1: Something's Different...

by Henri Béhar

CANNES - May 7. Is it because it's the 50th anniversary? Or because the festival started on a Wednesday instead of the traditional Thursday? Everything feels lopsided and under extra-pressure. Everyone booked themselves on the usual transatlantic flights, arrived in Cannes on the usual Monday and Tuesday and found themselves one day short for setting up camp. Duh!

''Whaddya mean, Everything is closed''? ''How dare the French and the rest of Europe have a Labor Day weekend that's not on the same date as ours?''

In the face of such shrillness, the French, contrary to their reputation, proved incredibly patient - make that positively angelic.

''The Fifth Element'' press conference was a surrealistic affair. Gary Oldman arrived slightly late. Along with French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who is responsible for the costumes of ''The Fifth Element'', Oldman was the only one on the panel not to wear dark glasses.

So in sauntered Bruce wearing black from his boots up to the knit cap hiding a bald plate the actor usually flaunts on screen. ''Bonjour,'' he said in French to about 400 journalists massed together in the huge Salon Des Ambassadeurs. One suspected from that moment on that the tone would be one of irony. Hopes were still high when Jean-Paul Gaultier was asked how he had gone about dressing up Bruce Willis for ''The Fifth Element'',

''With that body, are you kidding?'' the designer replied with a heavy French accent. ''He is the easiest person to wrap.''

You could almost hear the women in the audience collective sigh, ''And to unwrap?''

The press conference ritual continued amicably enough, with the expected questions and the no-less expected answers (see ''Doublespeak'') Considering ''The Fifth Element'' was his 2nd sci-fi movie in a row (Terry Gilliam's ''12 Monkeys'' came first), Willis was asked whether he was truly a science fiction fan.

''I am a fan of great film directors,'' he replied. ''I loved working with Terry Gilliam and I liked working with Luc Besson. I find it interesting that European film-going audiences are much more in touch with the artistic merits of a film, and not just how much it costs or how much the actors were paid. We had a good time making the movie. I don't know if I'd call '''The Fifth Element''' an American film. Luc Besson brought a European sense of style to it. He has a great sense of style and he doesn't hit you over the head. If this had been made by an American, it would have been different. There is a sense of mystery in this film which makes it more interesting.''

Asked what memories he kept of the shooting of the film in Pinewood Studios near London, England, his one reservation, as he put it, was ''Donuts. Donuts in London really blow. I think scones are just trying to be donuts. Does anyone know what scones are about?''

But then a coolness set between the audience and the panel. The silence was, at times, impressive. Bruce Willis did bare his fangs at one moment when someone mentioned a review of ''The Fifth Element'' published that same day in Variety calling it a ''stinker''.

''Only a Brit could refer to the film as a 'stinkah','' Gary Oldman muttered. Willis's terse comment was, ''I don't think anyone here pays any attention to reviews. Reviews are for people who read reviews. The printed word is going the way of the dinosaur. As you can see here,'' and he gestured toward a bank of television cameras, ''most people get their information from the electronic media. Everyone gets their information from the television. The people I know in this business don't give a damn about what's written about them.''

Bruce may be right. However, how come any actor that we've all met can quote the one slight reservation in a glowing review you wrote 10 years ago?

The Opening Night party was a much more livelier affair. Oh, the whole thing was arranged with military precision. Sparing no expenses, apparently, Gaumont had built an entirely new space jutting out into the sea, a huge warehouse twice the size of the James Bond sound stage at Pinewood Studios. In order to get in, beside your invitation, you had to have that mysterious Sesame in the shape of a Swatch watch. You put it in a strange apparatus which after much clicking and whirring, spewed out the real pass, complete with passport photo, without which you couldn't step into the sanctum sanctorum. Most of us kept the swatch and threw away the pass.

Yes, Demi was there. The face was totally gorgeous. The wrap she was wearing, however, whoever designed it, could only come from a Nolan Miller nightmare. Mercifully, she remained seated at her table most of the time.

The party was enlivened, so to speak, by a futuristic ballet performed by what appeared to be less dancers than female pugilists. Then the evening belonged to Jean-Paul Gaultier, as the huge X that stood in the middle of the venue became a runway for the designer to display the numerous costumes he created for the film.

Then other people disguised as hypertrophied-brained mangalores ushered all the guests - somewhat firmly, one must say - onto the terrace for them to watch the opening night fireworks. The fireworks were captivating - and we all felt captive.

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