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Cannes Virgin Festival Diary 1: From ‘Gatsby’ to ‘Heli’ and Back

Cannes Virgin Festival Diary 1: From 'Gatsby' to 'Heli' and Back

The first indication that things at Cannes weren’t going to be quite as I imagined them to be – red carpet and champagne, rinse and repeat – was the crush trying to get on the express bus from the Nice airport.  The bus was 20 minutes late in arriving from Cannes, and there was a lot of jockeying going on, which is a nice way of saying butting in line, except there were no real lines, not to mention not enough seats. As the harried driver pulled away a woman in the back began yelling for him to stop, exclaiming, “You didn’t take my husband or my bags. I need both.” The driver stopped and the woman exited to general laughter.

The driver did not seem entirely amused, however, and drove the highway and then down the narrow, winding streets of Cannes as if directed by Paul Greengrass.  In fact, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Greengrass is the honorary traffic coordinator in Cannes, all scooters and mini-Coopers and high-rpm downshifting along streets like the Impasse Marceau or the Rue du Chateauneuf, both of which are about twelve feet long. I swear Matt Damon passed me several times late at night, in the rain, in a blur of grinding gears, a beautiful, doomed German girl in the seat next to him.

Alas, speed itself is almost completely missing at the festival itself. The truth is, or seems to be at least, that while the image of Cannes is the ubiquitous stars strolling the red carpet, that image is brought to you by more than 4500 journalists of a decidedly less glamorous bent who spend much of their day in lines. The colored badge system, with blue being on the low end, pink on the high (with variations), helps of course if you have the latter. There are actually separate lines, with pinks getting first choice to seats, and the blues getting in only after all pinks are in. If you have a little white or yellow circle on your pink badge, you are a kind of royalty who can waltz into the Debussy at the last second without being frisked. This is extremely annoying if you are a blue, and very gratifying in a schadenfreude sort of way if you are a pink. Either way, you are grateful to be able to sit down, if and when.

But even queuing up in the pink line an hour ahead of time didn’t help get me into the “Great Gatsby” press conference, which I guess you can chalk up to the Leo effect. (It also didn’t help that, as the Hollywood Reporter reported, the entire first row was weirdly taken up by Warner Bros. executives. How gauche.)

Leo was backed by his good friend Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan et al, and of course director Baz Luhrmann, sporting his white Tintin coif. The most interesting thing he said was insisting on how much fidelity to Fitzgerald’s book he and DiCaprio and the entire cast had insisted, even down to using such Fitzgerald experts as James West – or Professor James West as Luhrmann insisted on calling him – as consultants. And Mulligan confirmed that Luhrmann gave her six books to read. This level of research strikes me as a bit strange given the stylistic license taken simultaneously; on more than one occasion the film seems more Dick Tracy than Scott Fitzgerald.

Roger Ebert’s widow Chaz asked Luhrmann about the African-American characters in the film, definitely there but sparingly so. Luhrmann went on a bit describing how he and his musical team feel that the music is one of the film’s stars, and that just as Fitzgerald used jazz because it was “right here, right now,” so did Luhrmann et al use hiphop because it too is right here, right now. The inference is that this is an African-American presence in and of itself.  Fair though perhaps not fair enough, but that is no doubt one of the reasons the film is doing so well at the box office – Luhrmann has managed to make this American Hamlet appeal to the kids.

Fidelity? You can admire these actors for their sense of responsibility here, and for their performances. If Fitzgerald set out to write the great American novel, DiCaprio carries his torch. But I don’t like the way the film accentuates everything – Fitzgerald’s words as enunciated by Maguire or flying around the screen like cheesy snowflakes, the absurdly regal parties that not even John Jacob Astor could have afforded, the oversized and over-revved and over-steered cars, the noise, the glitz, a butler in every nook. We are in an age of visual arts showmen – Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor to name just a few – and Luhrman is their brother in arms.The evening’s fare, the Mexican film Heli, could not have been more different, perhaps purposefully so. Thankfully my watching of this dark and disturbing tale was preceded by a few glasses of wine and a simple but hardy steak frites.

Your stomach is immediately tested by director Amat Escalante (“Los Bastardos”), who opens the film with scenes of a man being hung from an overpass. That will not be the hardest thing to watch. Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man at the center of a family: his father, his sister, his wife and baby. They are a pretty normal Mexican family, not well off by any stretch but relatively solid with both Heli and his father working in a factory. His 12-year-old sister Estela, played by an affecting nonprofessional named Andrea Vergara, goes to school and falls for an older boy named Beto, 17. Training to be some sort of policeman, Beto wants to run off with Estela and get married.  It is with that in mind that he makes a decision that will change everything for this family and himself; hell comes in a flash, and a loud pounding on the door.

If with “White Ribbon” Michael Haneke was exploring the reasons Germans in the earlier part of last century were so willing to hurt other Germans, Escalante is here simply showing what happens to one Mexican family. There is no analysis of Mexican society here, no manifesto, he and co-writer Gabriel Reyes said in the press conference, merely a story that interested them. As for the violence, it was important to deal with it honestly, by showing it in a realistic fashion and a realistic context. (“Hitchcock,” Escalante said, “always said that’s its more powerful not to show something. But I am doing the opposite here.”)

Arguably, he goes too far, but what is almost as disturbing as the violence itself is those who are committing it. This is a fiction, Escalante cautions, but one based on truths.  And by telling it he expects that the film, the violence, becomes part of the social discourse. Escalante makes interesting choices – with the story, with sexuality, with his camera. His is a quiet, patient eye, as are his characters; the passivity of the traumatized Estela, and the aggression in Heli, in fact tell us quite a lot about the face of Mexico today.

Coming out of the Palais, it was raining chiens et chats. A crowd of swell-looking tuxedoed men and glammed-up women huddled beneath a sea of umbrellas, waiting to get into the gala “Gatsby” opening. A few blocks up the Boulevard de la Croisette, I spotted a young woman from the side, long legs in a short skirt, umbrella covering her head, talking on her smartphone, the streetlights and rain mixing around her in the way that only streetlights and rain can. It was a perfect little Cannes moment, and I quickly took out my iPhone to capture it. Behind the woman stood four policemen. As I passed them, one said something to me in French but also in a language we all understand: cop speak, authority for the sake of authority. I should have just kept walking but I stopped and that was enough for one of them to grab my phone and, before I could summon up a “pourquoi?“, delete my photo.

“Because she did not want her photo taken,” explained his colleague. Very gallant, I’m sure, in a Gallic sort of way, but I doubted that very much. In any case, I didn’t know it was illegal in France to take photos of people on the street. If it is, I am living very dangerously. But as I walked on through town, I saw that the police presence was high, and special police, too. After Boston, they were perhaps especially on edge. In any case, one rogue smartphone photographer had been eliminated, more or less.

I was falling asleep as the fireworks went off in town; they were loud and grand.  The gala was over, the rain continued. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the rhythmic cry of a woman in an extremely pleasurable embrace. Ah, Cannes, I thought, more fireworks. It took me a moment to realize that what I was hearing was actually the cry of a seagull.

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Julia Chasman

You made me feel like I was there — thank-you for that. Some of us have no passes at all this year, of any color. I was wondering if the woman under the umbrella was going to turn out to be a star — maybe she was. Keep recording the small stuff — sometimes words are better than pictures….

Amy Dawes

Nice writing, Tom. I'll come back for more of that.


Speaking of Cannes Diaries, check out the short film to my new book "CANNES: TAKE NO PRISONERS." on "Soccerboy in LA."

Behind the scenes novel in which a producer shooting a documentary at Cannes has to fight tooth and nail to keep his production together and his crew safe from the festival itself…


Damon has no films this year? Behind the Candelabra?

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