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Cannes Fest Diary 2: Dull Coppola, Brilliant ‘A Touch of Sin’

Cannes Fest Diary 2: Dull Coppola, Brilliant 'A Touch of Sin'

I began the search for a room in Cannes quite late. I checked hotels.com, home to “Cheap Hotels, Discounts, Hotel Deals and Offers,” which is why I was a bit taken aback when my first offer was for a week at the Carlton for $52,000. What I wound up with was not quite the Carlton; it’s more of a bed with walls adjacent, a former maid’s quarters located on the ground floor of a very large complex; any resemblance to a prison cell, known or unknown, is entirely a coincidence. (Apparently, maids were expected to travel light.) But I exaggerate: there is actually considerable walking space on one side of the bed, and a bathroom that in a former life was probably a piece of pie. The sink is so small that it almost entirely fits beneath a narrow shelf, making brushing one’s teeth a challenge unless you are at a right angle. On the plus side, the toilet seat, a melange of sea horses and aquatic plant life embedded in clear resin, brings the beach and sun inside every day. Did I mention that my room is only 150 euros a night?

Importantly, my hostess, the nice Madame C., is also Frau C., which means we were able to communicate in German. (I studied a little French in high school, but you know what that means — rien.) And the most important thing is of course the bed, which is roomy and comfortable. Not that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on much less – a wet bench on the Croisette, say. I haven’t slept this soundly since my mining days. No joke, physical work will do that to you. Jostling the crowds of journalists racing towards the last remaining seats in the Lumiere, standing in the countless lines, lifting glasses of free wine, getting stuck behind Italians on a crowded sidewalk or caught on the wrong side of the street barriers before the evening galas, running back to the Palais when the modem you paid 99E for doesn’t work, and the writing.  It’s tiring!

No, really, it is. I asked a friend with a long Cannes history how do people go to movies all day, party half the night, and still manage to get work done let alone sleep.  “That’s why you see so many people asleep in the morning screenings,” he said.  That must make the filmmakers comfortable.  Yes, it’s true, the first big press screening of the day – and usually the most important one – begins at 8:30. That means that unless you have a little white or yellow circle on your badge, you should be there at 8, or even earlier when it’s a big film. Luckily, I have just a 15-20 walk from my room to the Palais, and the route I discovered passes a fruit and vegetable market and a wonderful little Patisserie.

It’s amazing what one will do when tired and in the South of France. My mother wrote to say that “Entertainment Tonight” had a segment on the high-priced call girls of Cannes, some of whom get $10,000 a throw. (Leave it to my mom to tell me the one thing that would make me feel like I wasn’t doing enough.) No, my extravagance today was to order a cappuccino AND a cafe au lait, two croissants, two mini raisin rolls and an orange juice. It felt like I was getting away with something, and I was: enough butter to last a week. Plus, it cost less than 7 euros. You be the judge.

Some of the out-of-competition screenings are down the street at the Marriot, and it was there I saw Ari Folman’s “The Congress” (reviewed here). That meant missing Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” but I was able to catch the press conference with her, Emma Watson and the rest of the young cast, which was primarily interesting for being not interesting. Coppola is a poet of disconnection, and it feels as if she knows the territory well: While gracious, she appeared not exactly unhappy at being there, but not exactly especially interested either. And she’s remarkably under-expressive about her work. Asked about Los Angeles and what role it plays in all of this – a rich enough subject for her to make a film about it, basically — Coppola said, “L.A. and Hollywood is the epicenter of this American culture that we’re looking at in the film. It IS the center of pop culture in America but it’s permeating culture around the world.” Asked about the late cinematographer Harris Savides, she replied, “He was such a great artist and I learned so much from him.” Asked about the real bling ring and if she was concerned about the kids taking offense at the film, she said, “It’s not a documentary and I’m not too concerned with their reactions.”

It reminded me of conversations with my great uncle Clark, who was a marine in WWII and gave new meaning to the word grunt. Of course, what Coppola says onscreen is the only thing that really matters – many wonderful visual artists couldn’t articulate the side of a barn — but I was reminded of the “Seinfeld” or “Sex in the City” or “Larry David” episode in which someone goes out with a fascinating famous artist of some kind who turns out to be incredibly dull. The most interesting thing Coppola said was muttered, almost an aside: One of the real bling girls had really wanted to steal Paris Hilton’s dog. She laughed a little saying it.

It may sound funny to call a film with so much darkness and violence in it a delight, but that’s just how Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” felt from its opening shot. (UPDATE: the film won the Cannes screenplay prize.) Based on stories ripped from the headlines, it follows four different characters in four different Chinese provinces: a miner, a migrant worker, a hostess in a sauna, a young man just starting out in life. For differing reasons, they each commit acts of violence, and it is Zhangke’s suggestion that this is a result of a new, alienating China.

“In this film I can share my feelings about contemporary society,” Zhangke said at the press conference. “What I have observed recently with great curiosity and interest is an increase in violent events. I thought it was necessary to talk about these things in film, and to put it in a very contemporary setting, like a martial arts film. If these characters were alive 300 years ago, in the era of the emperors, they would have behaved [just so]. Have human beings really changed? Probably not.”

The Chinese title, “The Choice of Heaven,” makes for an interesting counterpoint to the westernized “A Touch of Sin,” which is taken from martial arts films, specifically, I guess, a 1971 film called “A Touch of Zen.” The film features three wonderful known actors – Jiang Wu, possessor of one of the great faces in film today; Baoqiang Wang; and the directors wife/muse, Zhao Tao. “When I wrote the film,” said Zhangke, “I had in mind the three top actors, because I thought they could do this crude violence but with very complex emotions.” The two young newcomers, Lanshan Luo and Meng Li, were found after a national search.

“A Touch of Sin” is not all darkness. At one point, one man asks Wu’s character if he wants to move to another land. “No,” he replies, “they’re all bankrupt.”

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