Europe is burning. The unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano won’t stay put; Southern European countries are competing with each other to announce the most draconian austerity measures imaginable; a liquidity flood of Biblical proportions has failed to restore market confidence; and, if that weren’t enough, Simon Cowell is getting cold feet about marriage. These are dark days. So what better time for me to flee stern Con-Lib London and seek relief at the Cannes Film Festival? Surely better Penelope Cruz than Premier Cameron.
Penelope was too busy to hang out. No matter, I thought, since Cannes is about the awesome beast of independent film. Originally an act of Gallic bravura to protest Mussolini’s meddling with the Venice Film Festival, its first outing was to be presided over by moving picture pioneer Louis Lumière—before world war got in the way. In the following decades, it was home to Buñuel’s scandalous premieres and Fellini’s self-referential brilliance. And how could any self-respecting film fan forget how it once came to a sudden halt when its auteurs decided to show their solidarity with the May ’68 protests? Cannes is “le Festival” for a reason: it symbolizes art film at its purest—and most French.
Yet the first thing one learns at Cannes these days is to forget film. When asked how he was involved with the Festival, a guest at a production party replied succinctly: “I own a Formula One team.” The Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, you see, had been made to coincide this year; forget Obama’s, that’s a stimulus package.
“Cannes is about walking, until you get over that,” a British producer reflected, sounding indisputably philosophical. Was he referring to the breathtaking sights from the Riviera? Not quite. “It is tiresome to walk up and down, from dawn to dusk, from meeting to meeting,” he elaborated. “But when you get a yacht, everyone comes to you.” Sure enough, he uttered these words on the deck of his “yacht,” technically more of a petite cruise, against the backdrop of a sunset worthy of celluloid.
To say there is extravagance on the French Rivera is to state the obvious. A blitzkrieg of Audi A8s, BMW 750s, and Mercedes S-classes roamed like dutiful ants along the tightest alleys. One could be forgiven for thinking the rest of the Continent was out of black luxury sedans. And although the sheer amount of Vuitton handbags made me wish for a credit crunch comeback, at least those oversized, flashy sunglasses in vogue at the peak of the bubble have gone the way of subprime mortgages. Street artist or hedge fund manager, retro-chic Ray-Bans are the way to go. Small victories.
Hungry for art, better stick with the artists—or so I thought. Well after midnight and on a top talent agency’s yacht, a Belgian actress with piercing blue eyes explained there are only two “types” at modern Cannes: actors and financiers. (Journalists apparently don’t quite make it.) After a couple of drinks, she added that the types make for unstable bedfellows. Rather than ying-and-yang complementarity, their entanglement is like a duel, and one side is clearly winning. “You have to choose,” she concluded.
She has a point. The summit of independent film-making had opened earlier that evening with Ridley Scott’s $237 million Robin Hood, basically a remake of his own Gladiator featuring the same lead, Russell Crowe, and released by the same studio, Universal. The tagline says it all: “The untold story of how the man became the legend.” (Gladiator’s was far subtler: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”) Furthermore, the President of the Jury is Tim Burton, who hasn’t directed a salient film since the Iraq War started (Big Fish) and whose last feature was Disney’s Alice in Wonderland—allegedly best enjoyed through the value-added looking glass of 3D spectacles. Hopes were not to be placed in coming attractions either. On yet another yacht, an actress with the ability of bringing any conversation topic back to herself within ten seconds (I tested this in the most scientific way one could) described a green-lit project that involves her playing a Russian porn star who also happens to be a terrorist. If only zombies were involved. Such interactions reminded me of Milan Kundera’s verdict about life being “a struggle for the conquest of one's ear.”
But while the streets were always packed around the red carpet, and each independent screening I attended had open seats, not all was lost.
My father used to tell me that in the misery of post-war Italy, film was the finest antidote—it taught him everything from the secrets of statecraft to how to court a woman. I followed his advice into the premiere of a restored cut of Visconti’s masterpiece, The Leopard, ironically bankrolled by none other than Gucci. Courtesy of the fashion house, we can all witness a more vivid Burt Lancaster deliver a perfect line that best synthesizes Cannes itself: “If we want things to stay the same, everything must change.” Perhaps there is a way to bridge the gap. For, at that unique moment when lights dim and anything is possible, it becomes clear that film remains the art—and business—of illusion.
Pierpaolo Barbieri is the Lt. Charles Henry Fiske III Harvard-Cambridge scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge.