THE BACK PAGES

May 29 2006

THE BACK PAGES

May 29 2006

RIDING THE DA VINCI EXPRESS

THE BACK PAGES

film

Seeking the Truth aboard a 300-km/h publicity machine hurtling toward Cannes

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

It's the story of an elaborate cover-up, a mystery riddled with coded icons, and a conspiracy engineered by powerful forces that hold millions in their thrall. Are we referring to Opus Dei, the Vatican, and the secrets about Jesus encrypted in The Da Vinci Code? Well, no. We’re talking about the plotting of a Hollywood studio, the branding of Renaissance art, and the gospel of spin. This is the story of a campaign to focus the world’s attention on a blockbuster while trying to distract the media from the inconvenient truth that it’s not a good movie.

Like The Da Vinci Code itself, the campaign unfolds as a frantic odyssey through England and France. But this grail quest travels by train, a rolling media junket headed to the redcarpeted altar of the Cannes Film Festival— the high mass of world cinema. A day before the May 17 Cannes premiere, some journalists are invited to join the movie’s cast and crew on a Eurostar express racing from London to Cannes—setting a Guinness world record for the longest non-stop international train trip. I’m the only Canadian journalist on board. Stretched through a quarter mile of highspeed train, this Columbia Pictures junket serves as the delivery system for the most ambitous PR juggernaut I’ve ever seen—a cross-promotional blitz flogging icons of Christianity, classical art, French tourism and, oh yes, a movie.

The previous night, we were summoned to Sony’s London headquarters to watch a 35-minute preview of footage from the film, just 24 hours before seeing the whole movie in Cannes. This is unusual, and fishy. Why couldn’t Sony show us the whole movie in London, before we interview cast and crew on the train? The official line is that the stu-

dio wants to unveil the film in Cannes as a “surprise.” More likely it’s a strategy of damage control, to hold negative reviews until the last moment. The abridged version turns out to be a highlight reel of the best scenes. As grail knight Leigh Teabing, Ian McKellen towers above his co-stars, performing a waterto-wine miracle of making a banal script sound as rich as Shakespeare. And he dominates the preview footage so heavily that if you didn’t know better, you’d swear that he, not Tom Hanks, is the star of the movie.

Sony’s Da Vinci slogan, “Seek the Truth,” begins to take on new meaning.

On the morning of May 16, before a vast phalanx of cameras on the platform of London’s Waterloo station, the somewhat beefy Hanks, his co-stars, and director Ron Howard step onto a little stage for a ceremonial brassplaque christening of the Da Vinci Code train. It has been turned into a moving billboard, wrapped from stem to stern in vinyl images of the Mona Lisa and Code logos. Acting like a general sending a troop train off on a historic mission, Eurostar’s French chairman raves about how “we like our travellers to seek the truth.” Mugging for the cameras, Hanks looks embarrassed, as if he’s been trapped into opening a shopping mall.

McKellen, however, tricked out in a panama hat and turquoise pants, seems to relish the occasion as just another flamboyant theatrical opportunity. As the train pulls out of London and picks up speed, his voice comes booming over the PA system. “Dear guests, we have observed history. We are in history now. Welcome to the maiden voyage of the Da Vinci Code train.”

The junket is run with military precision. An anxious, jet-lagged army of studio publicists, most of them female, coordinate inteviews on headsets. They’re all uniformed in turquoise T-shirts adorned with Leonardo’s VitruvianMan—the spread-eagled naked guy. This must be the first time male genitals have been instrumental in the promotion of a studio picture. You won’t find any full frontal

nudity in the movie itself, however. Although the murderous monk Silas (Paul Bettany) and the curator he kills in the Louvre both appear naked, their genitals are as mysteriously absent as those on a Ken doll.

I find myself sharing a railway car with TV folk, including Entertainment Tonight veteran Mary Hart and her squad of producers and editors. Hart, 55, is the Barbie-blond prototype for the tabloid TV host, and seeing this legend in the flesh is somehow more impressive than seeing Hanks. Encased in an unforgiving scarlet dress, with a wireless microphone unit taped to her back, Hart teeters on high heels as she performs stand-ups for the camera at 300 km/h. Like moviemakers, the ET crew cheats the chronology. “Now we’re zipping by the city of Paris,” Hart tells her viewers, as the train flies through the French countryside, just minutes after emerging from the Chunnel. “Now we’re approaching Avignon,” she gushes in another segment, several hours before reaching Avignon. “It has been an amazing journey with Tom Hanks...Be there as we arrive in style—it’s your only ticket to this once-in-a-lifetime ride.” Movie junkets usually take place in luxury hotels, with the studio setting up TV cameras in a room, and the journalists filing in and out, receiving tapes of their interviews. This is the first junket ever held on a train.

The protocol is the same, but more compressed. Print journalists are scarce, and Hanks is doing only TV. McKellen is a game interview subject although he finds the whole process faintly absurd.

“We all wonder if there’s any point to it,” he says. “It’s not a bad thing for an actor to have to explain himself. But to explain himself over and over again, just giving stock answers to stock questions—I did 75 interviews in two days for The Lord of the Rings. That was too many.”

McKellen is an irrepressible contrarian. Asked about the religious controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code, he says, “There’s been much, much, much less of a hoo-ha than one might have expected. This train has Da Vinci Code plastered all over it, and there hasn’t been one person standing by the tracks, holding a placard, throwing tomatoes. The world should relax.” Alfred Molina, the British actor who plays Opus Dei’s Bishop Aringarosa, concurs. Arguing that the Da Vinci storm has been largely fabricated by the media, he says, “Controversy would be someone throwing himself in front of this train.”

But the filmmakers seem torn between snuffing out controversy and denying it exists—one minute they’re exploiting the film’s historic patina, then next they’re saying, hey, it’s only a movie. Howard keeps stressing that his movie is just an entertaining fiction. But his Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) appears anything but relaxed. “Ron and I have never been exposed to this level of controversy,” says Grazer, after a publicist directs me to a train seat across the aisle from him. “I

don’t like the controversy. Because it’s so out of your hands. We’re not generating it. It’s just happening. You just wake up every morning and put your safety belt on.”

Scarecrow-thin, with wild eyes and an electro-shock hairdo, Grazer is one of Hollywood’s more eccentric-looking producers. Expressing curiosity about Canadian magazines, he uses a pen to scribble the name of a title I mention on the back of his hand. When I ask why the studio wouldn’t show the media the movie in advance, he’s skittish. “What did everyone else tell you?” Asked about selling the movie as a search for truth, Grazer takes the high road: “As human beings on the planet, people kill people based on what they think is the truth. And we as a group of filmmakers—even though it’s fictionare interested in flattening that. I want it to promote peace.”

The movie’s screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, offers the most pragmatic viewpoint. “The movie is at least as inflammatory as the book,” he says. “If you’re not willing to present those narrative issues, don’t adapt it.” His job, he adds, “was to make a movie that seems like the novel—use smoke and mirrors to make people feel they’ve just seen the novel, but in 3D.” Trying to please readers with an immaculate reproduction posed a problem: “The novel pretends to be a thriller. Then, just when you’re lulled into thinking it is, you get dropped into a 250-page dialogue scene. You want to put a gun in your mouth. To move through that, we employed every trick of the trade.”

So what about the Truth? Is promotion another false gospel? Goldsman smiles. “Remember TheX-Files—‘the truth is out there.’ I don’t think anybody really thought there was an alien conspiracy, which doesn’t mean we

don’t use those phrases to get people to watch. We are a culture of conspiracy junkies.” The Da Vinci conspiracy all began with a mild-mannered scribe named Dan Brown. Shortly before we arrive in Cannes, the Eurostar chairman comes on the PA to tell us that Brown is on the train and drove it for a brief stretch. It’s one thing to have your novel sell over 40 million copies, another to see it made into a

blockbuster movie. But now it’s a train, a 300-km/h publicity machine with the author at the wheel. The mind boggles.

IN THE PAST YEAR, over 1,000 copies of Brown’s novel in 10 different languages have turned up in Eurostar’s lost and found—proof that it’s popular, but also disposable. And after sitting through the 2 Vi-hour adaptation, which moved much slower than the train, New York Times critic A.O. Scott called it “one of the few screen versions of a book that may take longer to watch than to read.” Launching a movie in Cannes is a mixed blessing. Yes, it’s the world’s fattest photo opportunity, but it’s also a mass rally of the world’s most ruthless critics. And at the first press screening, the night before the red-carpet premiere, the knives were out. If you’ve just immigrated from Mars, and don’t know

the ending of the Da Vinci Code, consider this a spoiler alert. At the plot’s payoff moment, when symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) tells cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) that she’s a direct descendant of Jesus Christ, the audience explodes in laughter. Although Howard says the movie can mean different things to different people, this is not what he had in mind.

To be fair, the movie occasionally improves on the book, adding some shrewd twists, and putting some visual flesh on its iconography. But the film follows the novel so doggedly that any attempts to tart it up are glaring. A parade of cheesy “historical” flashbacks show Mary Magdalene giving birth one minute and the Inquistion drowning witches the next. And Bettany, who portrays Silas as a sexualized psycho brute with a bad accent, is ridiculous. But Opus Dei must have a great gym— as the monk flagellates his naked, buffed body, it looks like he spends more time work-

ing out than praying. Bring on Silas, the gay S&M action figure.

Tautou, meanwhile, looks lost as she delivers a pale facsimile of her Amélie ingenue act. Her role is to look astonished and reiterate plot points with lines like, “You are saying zee holy grail eez a woman?” She also throws a “sacred feminine” spin into the Hollywood chase cliché by racing a Smart car backwards through the streets of Paris. A weak joke. As for Hanks, he hangs back, soldiering on with wooden integrity. McKellen is left to happily steal the movie, unearthing hidden vaults of nuance in dull dialogue. But he elevates the material with such magisterial wit, the drama feels deflated when he’s offscreen.

The Da Vinci Code press conference is more entertaining than the movie. Every year in Cannes, the international press manage to lower the bar of journalistic inquiry. A man from Iceland asks Hanks what he loved about...Iceland. “Why do I love Iceland?” says Hanks, deadpan. “We only have a few minutes here, but I’m just going to start with how sensational the people are. The location is ideal. Summertimes are beautiful. There’s a lot of great camping. And you can

get a really great and relatively inexpensive cup of coffee. That’s the recipe for a superduper country as far as I’m concerned.” McKellen steals the press conference as well as the movie. “When I read the book, I believed it entirely,” he begins. “And when I put the book down I thought, ‘What a load of potential codswallop.’ And that’s still going

happy to believe that Jesus was married. I know the Catholic Church has problems with gay people, and I thought this would be absolute proof that Jesus was not gay.”

The Da Vinci Code pilgrimage ends that night on the red carpet, amid a blaze of glitter. After the premiere, the black-tie horde trudges to a soiree staged under a vast black pyramid in the old port, “beneath starry skies” worthy of the novel’s final page. By now the Truth has been revealed: the Emperor is severely underdressed, and after all the anticipation, the response to the film is overwhelmingly negative. But as floodlit smoke pours like incense from the apex of the black pyramid into the Mediterranean night—not far from where Mary Magdalene was rumoured to have found exile—this movie still looms larger than what anyone might think of it. And there’s no grail to be found in Cannes, just a Hollywood mirage on the Riviera. For The Da Vinci Code, a train with unstoppable momentum, the only true grail is the box office. Nl

on in my mind.” Then he says: “I’m very

IAN MCKELLEN STOLE THE SHOW. T THOUGHT IT WOULD BE ABSOLUTE PROOF THAT JESUS WASN’T GAY.’

ON THE WEB: Get daily updates as Brian D. Johnson blogs from the Cannes film fest www.macleans.ca/insidecannes

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