Films

A Cannes-do event

Stars and deal-makers all flaunt their stuff at the film festival

Brian D. Johnson May 31 1999
Films

A Cannes-do event

Stars and deal-makers all flaunt their stuff at the film festival

Brian D. Johnson May 31 1999

A Cannes-do event

Films

Stars and deal-makers all flaunt their stuff at the film festival

Brian D. Johnson

They were the two most famous Canadians in Cannes, two Toronto boys making good on the French Riviera. Both were holding court at the fabled Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel, but they might as well have been on different planets. Downstairs, director Atom Egoyan was being feted at an elegant dinner before the red-carpet world première of his film Felicia’s Journey, a top contender in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival. Upstairs, in a penthouse lounge overlooking the Mediterranean, Mike Myers was promoting his forth-

coming sequel Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, even though it was not being shown at the festival.

Myers, looking profoundly casual in a T-shirt and baseball cap, appeared unaware of Egoyan’s film. Fie had managed to track his beloved Maple Leafs through the NfiL playoffs by going online with a laptop computer. But he was too busy being a movie star to see movies, or to cheer on a home-town auteurs bid for the Palme d’or. Visiting Cannes for the first time, he was overwhelmed by the insanity of it all. “Austin Powers would love

it here,” he said, “but Mike Myers is confused.” The modest young comedian was still in recovery from having his picture taken. “We get put in this motorcade,” he said, “and it’s crowded and noisy and hot, and people are screaming. We get taken to this tent. Then one side of the tent falls down and there’s, like, 3,000 photographers. It felt like that scene in MASH where fiot Lips is taking a shower. I didn’t know what to do. It was a real La Dolce Vita moment.”

Egoyan, meanwhile, is a Cannes veteran—Felicia’s Journey is his third film

in competition after Exotica in 1994 and The Sweet Hereafter in 1997—but he had his own jarring encounter with celebrity chaos. After the première of Felicia’s Journey, which was warmly received by the black-tie crowd of 2,300 spectators, he had trouble getting into his own party. As he and his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, trailed Felicia producer Mel Gibson and his retinue into the soirée on the beach, security guards rudely shoved the couple back against a steel barricade. “I immediately started getting very loud and abusive in French, and they finally let us in,” said Khanjian afterwards. Egoyan, meanwhile, was still buzzing with adrenaline from the première. “I was more nervous than I thought Ed be,” said the 38-year-old director. “No matter how much you think you’re used to it, it’s a very weird experience to present a film to the world.”

A cocktail of ffollywood glamour and French formality, Cannes is actually several festivals in one. For stars like Myers, Gibson, Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor it is a media circus. For the legions of producers and distributors flogging films in the market, it is a vast trade show. For Egoyan, and the other 21 directors with features in official competition, it is

the high church of international cinema—with the coveted Palme d’or serving as the ultimate consecration. Then there is the Directors’ Fortnight, a kind of alternative festival where unknown talents can win international recognition overnight. That is exacdy what happened last week to Toronto’s Jeremy Podeswa, director of The Five Senses. “It’s like an out-of-body experience,” said the 37year-old writer-director after seeing a rapt audience break into a prolonged standing ovation at the end of his première. Podeswa was courted by the elite Hollywood talent agency William Morris. And he found himself sharing a panel with critic Roger Ebert and directors Ron Howard, John Sayles and Spike Lee. “I was sitting between Ebert and Sayles,” Podeswa recalled, “and I kept wondering, ‘Whose life am I living?’ My life wasn’t like this yesterday.”

Meanwhile, for the 4,000 media members who serve as circus audience, the Cannes experience rolls by as a dreamlike collision of events and images.

Opening day. The festival flew in Jeremy Irons from London to surprise his friend, jury president David Cronenberg, onstage at the inaugural ceremonies. (Irons has always acknowledged his 1988 Cronenberg movie, Dead

Ringers, as the turning point in his career.) And Irons has agreed to do an interview in the car from the Nice airport. But he arrives so late, the interview must take place in a helicopter. Looking like one of his more weathered characters, Irons shows up in a tan jacket and spooky little sunglasses, a battered leather bag slung over his shoulder. As he waits for his luggage at the Nice airport, he hand-rolls cigarettes and obliges a constant stream of autograph seekers, signing with an impressionist scrawl that spills over the page like an extended sigh. The helicopter whisks him to „ Cannes, and a car deposits him at the I Carlton, where an appropriate horde of I fans and cameras is waiting to confirm his celebrity.

The opening night film, which plays out of competition, is The Barber of Siberia, an overwrought epic by Russian master Nikita Mikhalkov, which cost $66 million and outgrossed Titanic at the Moscow box office. With British actor Julia Ormond miscast as an American traveller who falls in love with a Russian cadet in 1893, it plays like an ersatz Doctor Zhivago. Despite some stunning visuals, the film lumbers on for three hours, lurching between farce and melodrama like Boris Yeltsin on a bender.

The competition itself opens with a shock. Pola X is a film of savage, self-indulgent arrogance by French enfant terrible Leos Carax. It follows the selfdestructive odyssey of a young novelist (Guillaume Depardieu) who is incestuously involved with his mother (Catherine Deneuve), then abandons her, and his fiancée, to elope with his ghostly half-sister (Katerina Golubeva). The movie includes an astonishing scene of hard-core sex, which leads to the inevitable news conference question: were Depardieu and Golubeva actually doing it? The embarrassed answers suggest that, yes, they were.

Festivals are riddled with weird convergences. In Pola X, a man crashes a motor scooter; in the next film screened, Wonderland, another man crashes a motor scooter. But Wonderland, by British director Michael Winterbottom, is quite wonderful. Shot in a documentary style, it is a weave of bleak lives in

working-class London—unloved women, negligent fathers, an abandoned child. Miraculously, Winterbottom pulls a catharsis out of this cold fire with a sensational childbirth scene, played by Canadian actress Molly Parker. Parker also stars in Podeswas The Five Senses, as a mother whose child suddenly goes missing. It, too, presents an ensemble of alienated lives, but in a style of suspended existentialism highly reminiscent of Egoyans.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar provides the festival with its first solid hit with All About My Mother, an ode to actresses, and women who act in every sense of the word. With Crayola visuals and a subversive wit, Almodovar creates candy for the eye and the mind. But he also reveals a new emotional depth via Cecilia Roths powerhouse performance as a mother whose son is fatally hit by a car while he chases a stage actress for an autograph on his 17th birthday.

As the festival unfolds, lost children seem to be everywhere—from the mutilated body of an 11-year-old girl in

Cannes is several, festivals in one, including the alternative Directors’ Fortnight, where unknown talents can win international recognition overnight

Bruno Dumont’s L’ Humanité to the marooned teenage daughter in Sayles’s Limbo. But nowhere is the theme more haunting than in Felicia’s Journey. Based on the 1995 novel by Irish author William Trevor, Egoyans eighth feature is about Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a naïve 17-year-old who travels to Birmingham from her home in rural Ireland in search of the English lad who made her pregnant. Instead, she finds a kindly catering manager named Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a gende psychopath who befriends wayward girls. It is a beautiful, spare drama, essentially a two-character piece. But Khanjian adds a wild flourish of comic relief as Hilditch’s mother, the flamboyant host of a 1950s cooking show that she made with her son when he was a boy—and which he now watches obsessively on videotape.

Felicia’s Journey is a thriller that builds

bloodshed. WTiile his predatory camera surveys the English industrial landscape with a sense of brooding menace, Egoyan filters the novel through his familiar template of shuffled time frames and video memories. But never before has he drawn such natural, intimate performances from his actors: as the cozy psychopath, Hoskins is mesmeriz-

ing, and Cassidy is a quiet revelation.

Felicia’s Journey works against the grain of thriller conventions with such subtle force, however, that some critics, notably the Americans, are left cold. “I don’t think I’ll ever have as unanimous an American response as we had for The Sweet Hereafter,” Egoyan concedes, referring to his film that won three awards in Cannes two years ago.

But the director gains an ardent fan in actress Faye Dunaway, who told him Felicia’s Journey brought her to tears. At the party afterwards, she wanted to know all about his past work, and was clearly sizing him up as a candidate to direct a pet project in which she would star—the life of diva Maria Callas. Khanjian, standing by her husband’s side, informed her that she, too, is developing a Maria Callas movie. Ah, so that would be as a producer, Dunaway inquired. No,

she would write it and star in it, replied Khanjian. Dunaway, her expression hardening, said there would surely be room for two Maria Callas movies. “Of course,” says Khanjian later, laughing about the encounter, “and they could both play in competition in Cannes the same year.”

At weeks end, the outcome of this year’s competition is anyone’s guess. After days of dark, heavy, introspective fare, a string of American films lightens the mood. Jim Jarmusch offers a whimsical take hit-man genre, casting Forest

Whitaker as a Zen gunslinger in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Sayles goes off the beaten track with Limbo, about three characters lost in the Alaskan bush. Tim Robbins launches Cradle Will Rock, a shambling piece of social realism about a ’30s political theatre project in Manhattan. And David Lynch, famous for the postmodern perversity of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, ironically announces the end of irony with The Straight Story, the true tale of an old man, played with sublime dignity by Richard Farnsworth ( The Grey Fox), who drives from Iowa to Wisconsin on a John Deere lawn mower. “America at 472 miles an hour,” is how Lynch describes it.

Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, meanwhile, is the hottest ticket in the Directors’ Fortnight. Attempting to recapture the style of his 1989 breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing, he concocts another pressure-cooker drama about a New York City neighbourhood cracking at the seams during a heat wave. It is the summer of 1977, and serial killer David Berkowitz is terrorizing the ItalianAmerican section of the Bronx. Lee throws together a lurid kaleidoscope of murder, drugs, disco, punk, pornography, adultery, bigotry and vigilante violence. Apparently, for the sheer hell of it. In the spirit of his subject, Summer of Sam is the handiwork of a director who seems alarmingly desperate for attention. It is a far cry from the eerily civilized portrait of a serial killer in Felicia’s Journey. And not half as scary. C3