Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999

1999 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Day 1 (Part II)

by Henri Béhar

Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999 is brought to you by:

CANNES, Wednesday, May 12 - later.

Starring Julia Ormond, Richard Harris and Oleg Menshikov, The Barber of Siberia is a three-hour-long, lushly romantic epic (read: with tons of music). And that's the short version. Released in Russia earlier this year in a six-hour version, it has, according to director (and co-producer) Mikhalkov, made in a couple of months more than Titanic.

I don't think it's going to make this score worldwide. The consensus within the press corps ranged from mixed to respectfully negative. "Talk about overacting," grumbled one American journalist. The first ninety minutes of the film are on the verge of slapstick - Russian-style, e.g., bordeline-silent film acting. "Why is Julia Ormond playing Tuesday Weld playing Bambi?", cried a Canadian journalist. Why indeed?

The Mikhalkov press conference was a strange ordeal. It started with a question asked by a young woman who called herself "Roller blade" - which she wears all the time, that's her gimmick. "Mr. Mikhalkov," she said, "you were a communist, now you play the czar in your film. Why do you always change your mind?" Most of the press corps gasped at the idiocy, one wondered how some people get press credentials, and Nikita Mikhalkov's expression was a study in contempt.

Mikhalkov attacked the image that Russians have in the West, particularly through the media. "All you see are criminals and drunkards, and a president [Yeltsin) that has a hard time walking." Yet, he added, this film is about dignity, rectitude, intelligence, and involvement.

Did he, as rumor had it, plan to run for President of Russia? Mikhalkov did not exclude the possibility, but gave every reason why he probably wouldn't. Asked why he'd done a period piece, which, under the old Communist regime, was the only way to deal with the present, and did he ever contemplate doing a contemporary movie about Russia today, he emphasized the fact that the script had been written twelve years ago, but yes, he agreed, such films should be made.

Throughout the press conference, lurked unasked questions about the war in Kosovo. Until someone finally did. Mikhalkov drew a parallel between the war in Chechnya and the present one in Kosovo, then launched into a tirade about how Americans never had to dig trenches in their own soil, never had to fight within their own country. So in a way, those wars were a bit abstract to them... This rousing speech was the perfect close for the Barber of Siberia press conference.

Time to segue into the Jury's press conference. Sitting dead center and surrounded by the likes of opera singer Barbara Hendricks, actors Jeff Goldblum (The Fly), Holly Hunter (Crash) and Dominique Blanc (Queen Margot) and directors George Miller (the Mad Max trilogy), Doris Dörrie (Him and Me) and André Téchiné (Wild Reeds), Cronenberg very calmly said that, so far, he had given his co-jurors one instruction: "Forget your national pride and your personal relationships, and everything will be cool." Looking at, but also beyond, the list of the films in competition, did he have the feeling there was a specific end-of-millenium kind of filmmaking, he replied: "Apart from the Y2K problem, which concerns computers, etc., I don't think there is such a thing. And if you're Jewish, it's not even the right number!" Asked whether the Festival had already pressured him (them) in order to give the Palme d'Or to an "art" film as opposed to a "popular" film, he obliquely countered with a sort of question: "Does the democratic process always lead to the bland middle? That's what we have ten days to find out."

And so do we.

For the opening night ceremony, the Festival organizers had a surprise for Cronenberg. Chinese actress Gong Li wore a gold dress (she was in with the L'Oréal contingent), Faye Dunaway wore white as did Holly Hunter. Clad in pink Chanel, emcee Kristin Scott-Thomas (English Patient) paid tribute to director Stanley Kubrick and actor Dirk Bogarde then introduced Dead Ringers star Jeremy Irons, who had taken a 24-hour break in the film he is shooting and flown in especially to call David Cronenberg to the stage. We like that...

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