There is an odd psychosomatic disorder known as Paris syndrome which is said to affect Japanese tourists upon their first visit to the French capitol. They say people are so shocked by that particular jolt of cold cultural water that hallucinations and anxiety attacks set in. Any wide eyed film lover on their first trip to the Cannes film festival could be forgiven for feeling somewhat the same.
The festival’s widely known to be a showbiz circus of sorts, but it’s best to forget what you might have seen or read, there’s really nothing out there to prepare you for it. The town simply breathes movies for two weeks of the year. Hotels and balconies carry banners for everything from Transformers 4 (or whatever) and The Nordic Film Invasion to an inexplicably enormous poster for Legend of Rabbit: The Martial of Fire.
It’s a place where Arnie and his expendables drive down the road on a tank; where local boutiques sell limited edition Palme d’Or caviar; and the local opticians is named Solaris (although that might not be so intentional, we’re really not sure). It’s the sort of place where, on a given day, you can see the final feature of Ken Loach; a scratch-n-snif Odorama card presentation of John Waters’ Polyester on the beach; a Palme d’Or contender from the 25 year old Xavier Dolan and a 3D visual poem from an 85 year old Jean Luc Godard.
The festival’s main hub, the grand Palais, peaks out from the Cannes harbour amidst the oligarch armada of billion dollar yachts and is the centre point of most goings on. The late Roger Ebert once described it as a Dantean setup (quoted from the very moving Life itself on Monday evening, a documentary on the critic’s life introduced by his widow Chaz) and it’s really not difficult to see why. Ebert was referring to the event as a whole but that description could be easily distilled to this singular cavernous place.
The floors are basically set up from low brow to high. A trip on the elevator to the Salle Bunuel on five will earn you a host of recently restored classics and, on Wednesday, a Sophia Loren master class too. Take the stairs two stories down and you’ll find the red carpet Galas and buzzy press junkets of the Salle Debussy and the Salle Lumiere. Dare to delve deep into the bowls of the basement and you’ll find the feeding frenzy of the festival market. A mad house of commercialism where you will find broke film makers and cynical producers flog such varied fares as Wolfcop, Pro Wrestling Vs. Zombies and the rather subtly titled Monologues of an Indian Sex Maniac.
The infamous press system alone is a hierarchy of sorts. Those lucky enough to even get a pass will find themselves categorized from pink to blue to the bottom feeding yellows (that’s me) and that’s before the student passes, market badges and invitations even begin to get a look in. It’s a system which seeks to put you in your rightful place as quick and clearly as possible. Compare this to the populist setup in Berlin, or even the more Bourgeois genteel folk over in Venice, and it can be a grounding feeling indeed. It’s enough to make you lose the way of yourself, but then you remember you’ve still got some films to see.
As anyone who attended this year’s Berlinale can attest, the competition was a bit of a disillusioning affair. There were gems to savour, no doubt about that, but you could still feel full days drifting by, the brain never pulling out of that lumbering first gear. So when it comes to the line-up, as with everything else, Cannes just plays in a different league. The only real explanation for the universally panned Grace of Monaco lifting the curtain on proceedings this year was that the organizers quite like a nice gander at their own shiny jurisdiction. Nicole Kidman’s latest effort put the good old Tax dodging protectorate as victims to the pesky socialist De Gaulle. It was a travesty for sure, the whistles which rang out were testament to that, but from here, thankfully, things got much more interesting.
Meaty early helpings came in the form of Malian fundamentalist study Timbuktu; Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 196 minute character study Winters sleep; and Mike Leigh’s period portrait of artist J.M.W. Turner, cleverly titled Mr. Turner. These three seem like years ago at this stage of proceedings but any one of them could pick up prizes come Saturday’s awards. David Michod disappointed with his ozbilly dystopian The Rover but at that point we were really only getting started.
Bennet Miller made it three in a row- and Steve Carell gave a career best performance- with their bleak, brilliant Foxcatcher; Cronenberg improved on recent outings with his toxic, satirical Maps to the Stars and then, just yesterday, the Dardennes made a claim for an unprecedented third Palme with their rousing socialist Two Days, One Night. It seems Gosling ruffled all the wrong feathers with his début Lost River but, regrettably, those of us in lowly yellow badges hadn’t a hope of getting in.
Surprise packages came in music video director Daniel Wolff’s debut Catch me Daddy; the exhilarating Sundance winner Whiplash; the defiantly nationalist Soviet hockey documentary Red Army and Alice Rohrwacher’s transcendentally beautiful The Wonders. It divided the critics but with Jane Campion at the Jury’s helm it might just be a dark horse for awards. Whatever the case; it’s a personal favourite thus far.
As I jot this all down in the press queue outside the Salle Lumiere, awaiting the 4pm premiere of Jean Luc Godard’s surely infuriating Adieu Du Language 3D, women in glamorous frocks and expensive perfumes glide past unawares. The director has had a shaky relationship with the festival over the years; nominated for the Palme d’Or seven times without a win, the first only coming in 1980, arguably after his best years had gone. In 1968 Godard famously took to the stage, after the credits had rolled on Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin, to announce that the festival would close in solidarity with the students in Paris. It seems that the place is heavy with this sort of history.
During a quick lunch between Ceylan’s three hour long Turkish epic and the somewhat less austere How to Train Your Dragon 2, I noticed Dennis Hopper’s hand prints set in the pavement beneath my feet. Hopper had come here with Easy Rider in 1969 on the forefront of the blazing trail that was New American Cinema. As I mulled over the weight of these events I lifted my head to see a poster for the upcoming- sans Harmony Korine and surely terrible- Spring Breakers 2. The garish piece of marketing hangs over a one story Rolex boutique on the Croisette and elegantly enquires “are you ready for a second coming”. History and contradictions; the place just thrives on them.
As I sit here on the Lumiere’s hallowed steps, feeling pale, Irish and alive, I note that while much of this year’s festival has come and gone, those great divides remain. A more than affable security guard shot some disapproving glances at my shorts just now, so there’s every possibility I won’t be getting in. Not to worry, if a seat for this legendary director synonymous with Paris, France is not to be, the legendary Paris, Texas screens in just a few hours time. Godard loved the power of contradiction. You feel this bizarre, wonderful and infuriating circus does too.