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The French Honor (But Still Don’t Get) Americans at the Deauville Film Festival

The French Honor (But Still Don't Get) Americans at the Deauville Film Festival

writer-director Damien Chazelle is hyper-articulate in two languages — his
father is French, his mother’s American and he attended school in both France
and the US — but he was near-speechless in both tongues when his film won the
Audience Prize and the Grand Prix at the 40th Deauville Festival of American

It didn’t hurt that
the top prize was announced by jury president Costa-Gavras whose fellow jurors
included Claude Lelouch, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Cannes Film Festival prez
Pierre Lescure.

This was my 21st
Deauville. Many of my French colleagues found this 40th anniversary edition too
calm, low on glamour and lazy in its programming. I dunno. I saw some good
movies and, at press conferences, I got to breathe some of the same air
molecules as Helen Mirren and Mick Jagger (neither of whom are famous for
being, uh, American.)

While the fest is an
undeniably pleasant event in an adorable setting, its glory days would appear
to be behind it. Deauville in the 1990s and even into the start of the 21st
century often hosted 4 or 5 world premieres. Celebs would make a point of
stopping in Normandy between Venice and Toronto, with directors such as Brian
De Palma and Abel Ferrara shuttling back and forth depending on the jury
choices in Venice.

They’ve run out of
still-kicking and/or able-to-travel members of Old Hollywood (the 25th edition
hosted the likes of Mickey Rooney, Cyd Charisse, Kirk Douglas and Lauren
Bacall) and have already honored Clint Eastwood. The literary award whose
previous winners include Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Budd Schulberg has even
been bestowed on Michael Cimino for a novel he wrote in English that has only
been published in French. At the luncheon in Cimino’s honor I spoke to a man
from the prestigious French publishing house Gallimard who was confident that
“Big Jane” would spark bidding wars. I didn’t break it to him that in
2001 in America, particularly in Hollywood, a novel by Cimino probably had
roughly the same cachet as a vacation home in Chernobyl.

But any director who
has ever had his or her film shown in Deauville’s state-of-the art CID
auditorium with its huge screen, fab sound and excellent sight-lines will tell
you that it’s one of the best possible venues on Earth for watching a movie.
The room holds 1499 people — not counting wheelchair seating. They installed 64 speakers for “I
Origins” which had director Mike Cahill close to doing cartwheels.

“Whiplash” was shown in the 14-film Competition, Chazelle greeted the
packed house with “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a theater this big let
alone had a movie in one.”  And when
probably 1000 of those people leapt to their feet and clapped like crazy as the
closing credits rolled you couldn’t help but wonder why anybody would even
contemplate watching a movie on a cell phone screen. (Netflix arrived in France
on September 15th, but that’s another story.)

Of course, while
movers and shakers of the French film biz make a point of stopping by on
opening or closing weekend, it’s primarily a fest for the people of Deauville
and surrounding towns. Paid admissions were up 15-percent and most screenings were

The permanent
population of Deauville hovers around 2,700. I never get over the fact that for
10 days each year a resident of this town on the English Channel has a much
better crack at seeing a rich lineup of American indies and documentaries than
my parents do — and my folks live in Chicago.

As a born and bred
Yank I shudder to think that the locals have formed their ideas about the USA
based on our movies.

As movie debate on
French soil goes, the next best thing to a conversation with colleagues beside
the lockers in the Palais at Cannes in May is a conversation with local women
in a ladies room in Deauville in September.

I have heard
interpretations of American customs so far off the mark (and spoken with great
authority) that I’ve had to duck into a stall to keep from cracking up in plain
sight. (The senior citizen take on Azazel Jacobs’ 2008 “Momma’s Man,” shot
in his parents’ exquisitely encumbered loft, comes to mind.  I “learned” that in California most
Americans go into food service jobs, professional athletics or show business
whereas in New York the choice is between being mob-affiliated and avant garde
artistic pursuits. Don’t forget serial killers!)

This year I had an
encounter that’s been haunting me since I got back to Paris. It was prompted by
the Deauville showing of Philippe Falardeau’s “The Good Lie” about
the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan and what happens when, after 13 years in a
crowded camp in Kenya, a small batch of Sudanese refugees are brought to the US
in early 2001 by a Christian do-gooder organization. The film is funny and
poignant and very well done. These young men who once hunted lions and whose
families were decimated are plunked down in middle America without a clue.  With the help of a job placement specialist
played by Reese Witherspoon, they do their best to fit in, working at a
supermarket or a plumbing supply factory to pay their way.

In the ladies room afterwards, I got into a conversation with an Australian, an Englishwoman — who had actually lived in Sudan for three years because her husband’s a diplomat — and a Frenchwoman. The Frenchwoman asked us if we liked the movie and we all
nodded with enthusiasm. She proceeded to tell us that she didn’t like it
“because it shows those people as honest and hard working and that’s not


She started speaking
— in a normal tone of voice — about how “real French people” can’t
afford housing but the government gives beautiful four-bedroom apartments to
refugees from Africa and the Muslim world and that “in 20 years France
will be a Muslim country.”  We were
all floored but fascinated. She claimed that “there are 15 million Muslims
in France and they all have eight children, paid for by our taxes. It’s

I countered that there
are not 15 million Muslims in France (whose population is about 66 million. The
statistics point to 600,000 Jews and perhaps 6 million Muslims.) She insisted
that there are.  The other women pointed
out that the refugees in the movie were Christians — they had no shoes but
they had a Bible. And it was a Christian org that sponsored them to come to the

I said, “If what
you say is true, then I’d better get out of here since I’m Jewish.”

She said, in all
seriousness, “I’m Jewish and everybody wants to leave. Everybody is

I said, “Last
year 4500 French Jews moved to Israel. So far this year it’s about 5000 and we
don’t know how many of those people just reached retirement age and always
intended to retire to Israel. That’s hardly a mass exodus or wave of

She told me I was a
blind fool if I couldn’t see the demographics and that France will be a Muslim state
before we know it.  (I’m having a hard
time conjuring a visual of observant Muslims answering the call to prayer in
front of Louis Vuitton or Notre Dame cathedral. 
Check back in 2034 but I think the more likely scenario involves global
warming and parched Parisians poaching eggs on cobblestones.)

Nothing we said — all
of it sensible — could make a dent in what she “knows.”

This was an
interesting twist on the kind of bad example censors worry about. The
Production Code Administration didn’t want Billy Wilder to make “Double
Indemnity” because it believed it would show moviegoers how to commit
murder. This lady thought her fellow citizens would be lulled into thinking
that shiftless foreigners might actually have some admirable qualities when it’s
a given that they’re freeloading parasites lowering the quality of the gene

Clearly immune to the
looming danger, on awards night the main jury bestowed its Jury Prize on
“The Good Lie.”

Although I assured
them that it’s a hard hitting piece of work when seen through American eyes,
French colleagues from major media outlets told me that “Camp X-Ray”
is ridiculous because “the US military would never send someone as young
and inexperienced as Kristin Stewart’s character to guard detainees in Guantanamo.”  No amount of arguing that that is precisely
what the US military might do (Abu Ghraib anyone?) made a dent in what they

I also got into
several friendly arguments with colleagues incensed that the fest honored
Jessica Chastain. “Nobody knows who she is!” I was told by half a
dozen film journos. Really? “Take Shelter” won the top prize in
Deauville in 2011. Chastain nailed the female lead in “Tree of Life”
which nabbed a little trinket called the Palme d’Or. Many an opinion piece dove
into the relative merits of “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Miss Julie” opened in France on
September 10th. And not long ago, on a tarp hiding renovation work, a cosmetics
ad comprised of Chastain’s lovely face adorned the entire facade of the Paris
Mint facing the Seine near the Pont Neuf.

But the film
specialist for one of the major French TV networks told me that her editor said not to bother interviewing Chastain “because nobody knows who she

For me, one of the
best things Deauville has going for it is that it takes place in the autumn and
yet the word “Oscar” is never mentioned.  Or at least it wasn’t until the closing

Hollywood A-list producer Brian Grazer was the subject of a tribute. Co-producer Mick Jagger
attended to help promote “Get On Up,” which had its European premiere
in Deauville on Sept 12.  Grazer seems
like an energetic, enthusiastic fellow who is genuinely interested in people
and in bringing compelling stories to the screen.  His track record is impressive and speaks for
So why must he be
introduced — in France, no less — as “Oscar-winner Brian
Grazer.”  I heard this four times in one day. Nobody spontaneously phrases an introduction
that way, so I gather it’s in writing somewhere.

David Ansen’s TOH! writeup on the top discoveries from TIFF 2014 is a splendidly written and keenly observed piece that says — indeed, shouts
— something that can’t be said often enough: The Oscar race, while
entertaining, has very little to do with championing excellence in a manner
meaningful to filmgoers and way more to do with all the gibberish that
surrounds branding and marketing and campaigning.

Deauville was actually crawling with Academy Award winners
— but they were all Europeans. Costa and Lelouch for starters. I spotted Michel
Hazanavicius in the audience one night. My table at the
pleasantly low-key closing dinner happened to include two Oscar winners: the
producer of “Indochine” and one of the producers of “The Great
Beauty.” You can bet your bottom euro they’ll never be introduced as
“Oscar winner so-and-so” unless they’re presenting an award at the
Academy Awards ceremony.

That said, in twenty
years, if you do the math, France might just be an all-Academy Award-winning

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