Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Deauville Film Festival Diaries
Deauville Diary: What's an American Film Festival Doing in France?

by Lisa Nesselson

Two years ago, the 20th Deauville Fest came on the tail of weeks of commemorative events honoring the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The shop windows of this tiny resort town displayed posters and decals with American and British flags saying - in English - "Welcome to our Liberators".

Just two years later, those posters could read "Welcome to our Colonizers".

Claude Lelouch's latest film -- which opened in France on August 28 and shows in Competition in Venice on Sept 4th -- features a scene in which high-powered lawyer Benoit Blanc (played by real life large-than-life disgraced entrepreneur and politician Bernard Tapie) asks actor-turned-cop Fabio Lini (played by Patrice Luchini): "You're in showbiz, so can you answer me this? What is it with Hollywood? What have they got that we haven't got?" Fabio replies, "Well, American movies take a small idea, which they tell via enormous means and French movies tackle big ideas but with paltry means."

The Hollywood variation on the ecologist's slogan "Think globally, act locally" is "Think globally, act globally." Oddly enough, this works. (And, in no small way, the planetary triumph of American-made entertainment goes back to America helping to make the world safe for democracy just over 50 years ago. I'm reminded of a visit to Vienna 10 years ago, during which I met two elderly local women who spoke excellent English. "How is it that you speak my language so fluently?" I asked in admiration. "Ah," one of the women said with a wry expression. "We have the Fuhrer to thank for that. You see, he insisted that we all learn English so we'd be prepared for when we conquered the United States and made you one of our colonies.") Hmmmm

America won the war.

The result? Even tribesmen in Borneo know of Mickey Mouse and probably Tom Cruise, whereas the American man in the street probably couldn't name three French actors or directors even if you threatened to subject him to each of the seven deadly sins and then eat his liver with fava beans washed down with a nice Chianti.

So it is that French film buffs find themselves salivating like Pavlov's dogs at the very thought of Deauville. Stars! AMERICAN stars are coming to see us. (As Wayne and Garth would say "We are not worthy! We are not worthy!" )

Come to think of it, compared to last year, perhaps the worthiness factor HAS waned. The 1995 fest hosted Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Denzel Washington.

This year's confirmed celebs include Eddie Murphy, Gena Rowlands, Gerard Depardieu (as French as they come, but on hand to support two all-American narratives: Norman Jewison's aptly-named "Bogus" and Nick Cassavetes' "Unhook the Stars"), Chazz Palminteri, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matt Dillon. And then there are the people who are in little danger of being mobbed for autographs in the U.S. but who make the hearts of French film buffs beat faster (and rightfully so): Kevin Spacey, Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh.

After two decades of relying on that nebulous 'I-know-it-when-I-see-it' commodity called glamour, Deauville branched out last year to include a competitive section devoted to American independent efforts. The 1995 jury included a lone Yank: screenwriter Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar, in the Adapted Screenplay category, for "Schindler's List.") This year, the jury, headed by the ravishing Charlotte Rampling is comprised entirely of Europeans: actresses Sabine Azema, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, Laura Morante and Ornella Muti, producers Rene Cleitman and Alain Rocca and actors Melvil Poupaud and Dominique Farrugia.

During the Cannes Film Festival in May, the French entertainment-centered weekly "Telerama" ran the results of a survey they'd commissioned in hopes of pinning down whether or not American movies are really a "menace" to French cinema.

Asked to choose between Yanks and Frogs for the rating of "most intelligent," 68% of those interviewed voted French and a mere 7% opted for American fare (12% felt one to be just as intelligent as the other and 13% had no opinion). French films won 50% over 31% for "most original" and 49% against 27% for being "most in tune with society." The only two headings in which American movies took a clear lead over French were "the most spectacular" (U.S.=84%, France=8%) and "The most inventive" (U.S.=55%, France = 27%).

So, how bright could it be to spend French funds to help promote output from the cerebrally-challenged enemy?

Well, Deauville gives an undeniable boost to a quaint vacation destination at the end of "the season". Deauville is a place to relax while being seen. By the first week in September, it's too cold to swim and too windy much of the time to play golf or tennis, but it's just right for wearing the kind of casual clothing that requires a rather more formal bank balance.

What goes by the name of Labor Day Weekend in the USA is known in France as "la rentree" or The Great Return. Imagine a nation of 55 million people. Now imagine that half of them all decide to get in their cars on the same morning and drive back home ON THE SAME DAY. Imagine turning on the TV news and seeing a NATIONAL traffic report. Not local, national. You can no more dissuade a Frenchman from milking the last 30 seconds out of his federally mandated summer vacation than you can disuade a French smoker from lighting up when and where he pleases. It's a birthright. But I digress.

The Deauville waterfront is graced with two huge, quite magnificent hotels, rated "4 stars: luxury". The Hotel Normandy, built in 1912 in Anglo-Normand style, offers 278 rooms, of which 25 are suites. The Hotel Royal, built in an astonishingly brief eight months in 1913, contains a mere 250 rooms, including 17 suites. Between them lies the Casino, built in 1912 and renovated in 1988. In addition to its 325 slot machines (meaning someone without a life could play a different one every day for almost a year), the Casino contains a 700-seat cinema and a 400-seat theater modelled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. These impressively staffed establishments are run by the Lucien Barriere group of resorts, hotels and casinos.

As of June of this year, the Deauville Casino boasts a trend-setting room in which one may bet on the horses and watch their progress live on TV monitors instead of venturing out to the track. In 1878, when Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford set out to prove once and for all whether or not a galloping horse's hooves all leave the ground at some point, little did they suspect that a betting man's two feet would no longer need to leave the ground in order to place his bet, watch the race and collect his winnings.

Deauville has several claims to fame in film history. An extremely early Pathe film stencilled in color shows fashionable people parading along the Deauville waterfront. In 1966, Claude Lelouch shot substantial portions of "A Man and A Woman" in Deauville and at the Hotel Normandy. ("A Man and A Woman" won 42 international awards, including two Oscars and the Palme d'Or at Cannes).

And now hundreds of men and women make the two-hour trip from Paris to enjoy advance showings of American films, from blockbusters to items that never even made it around the block. It's a frivolous, exceedingly pleasant festival, invented so the name "Deauville" would radiate out into the larger world. And, yes, it rhymes with "dough-ville." Apropos of that syllable, I'm told they're serving donuts at the Casino, along with the hotdogs and popcorn they've flown in for the occasion. They've also flown in four chefs from the Ritz-Carlton in Saint Louis to cook cajun food during the fest. I hadn't previously thought of Missouri as a hot bed of cajun fare, but you learn something every day.

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