Two hours away by car, Karlovy Vary, formerly known as Carlsbad, is gearing up for the 37th edition of its International Film Festival. Which means, you don't see a thing; as is the case with Cannes, things happen almost overnight. Tomorrow, the town will be festooned with gigantic posters of the selected films (over two hundred, in various sections, including a competition) and know its first annual traffic jam; for the moment, it is a sedate little burg, a health spa where people go from spring to spring. Along the river stands the Hotel Thermal, the heart of the festival, both administrative (all the offices and stands are there) and artistic (all the screening rooms are there, but the local cinemas contribute heavily).
"Stands"? "Sticks out," rather. In an area composed almost exclusively of stately mansions, the Thermal Hotel is like a Lefrak project trying to pass off as a Trump Tower in the midst of Harlem's super-elegant Hamilton Terrace. The only way not to see it is to stay in it. It is practical, though: you simply roll out of bed and down to the screening venues.
The Viennese gateau of Karlovy Vary's hotels is a chantilly-and-meringue edifice called The Pupp. The sort of munificent castle where you would put up congressmen and CEOs, Julia Roberts passing through or a visiting Sean Connery, to whom the Festival is paying tribute.
The best kept secret - the Beluga of boutique hotels - is the Embassy, a haven of calm and olde European elegance. That is generally where the jury stays, and where president Vaclav Havel hosts his annual dinner since, whatever the crisis at hand, he religiously visits the Festival every year. The crisis-at-hand this year comes from the fact that, having served two terms as president of Czechoslovakia and two terms as president of the Czech Republic, the beloved and respected writer-playwright-turned-political-prisoner-turned-politician cannot run again (nor does he want to). He will be a tough act to follow.
Dinner at the Embassy (Duck Bohemian-style is the specialty) with general delegate and chief programmer Eva Zaoralova. (pronounce Zaora-LO-va), a blonde bespectacled lady who speaks seventeen languages and doubles up as a film critic who teaches cinema in Prague when she is not hitting the festival circuit. Further down, Jiri Bartoska (Bar-TOSH-ka), president of the festival and a famous actor in his own right, is dining with Michael York, in town with renowned photographer-wife Pat for a special screening of a restored "Cabaret" (Bob Fosse's masterpiece which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary). At a small table in an alcoved corner, juror Roger Ebert is having a quiet nosh with wife Chaz, preparing up for his get-acquainted meeting tomorrow with the other members of the jury presided by actor-director Jean-Marc Barr. Hard to imagine that traveler extraordinaire Ebert is attending for the first time this Festival which is slowly but surely turning into the major East-meets-West film event. Or maybe it is a sign that this Festival has actually become that.
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