Fear and loathing at the Cannes Film Festival

August 8, 2014

"We originally wanted to have Stallone, Schwarzenegger and the rest of the cast arrive down a zipline, but our insurance company said they weren’t too keen.”

I’d usually classify this a fairly ridiculous thing to be told, the sort of line you hear every now and then and store firmly at the back of your mind to conjure forth whenever conversation at a dinner soiree goes stale. But it didn’t even make the top spot that day. That place was reserved for a request that came a few hours later, via a telephone call. “Would you like to go to a party on yacht with Pamela Anderson and Vivienne Westwood? They’ll be hosting a backgammon competition for charity or something.”

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival, a 12-day onslaught of utter madness in the French Riviera. On a relatively small strip of the Mediterranean coastline lined with eyewateringly overpriced five-star hotels, fashion boutiques and fancy restaurants, the world’s cinema industry decamps for an annual trade fair that’s about a million miles from the Middle East Call Centre Conference & Exhibition.

I’d wager that Cannes has a touch of the ridiculous to it all year round. It’s a place with arguably the world’s highest concentration of tiny rat-like dogs, Chanel handbags and pastel-coloured trousers, all paraded up and down the coastline Promenade de la Croisette; lined with enough revving Italian-badged sportscars to rival anything in Dubai. cannes2 But throw into this mix an estimated 30,000 film professionals – everyone from Hollywood’s elite right down to penniless indie scriptwriters (and equally penniless journalists) – plus around 200,000 extras – the gawping masses peering over the barricades at the Palais de Festivals to get a glimpse of an A-lister, and pouting hopefuls hoping to catch a casting director’s lustful eye – and you’ve got one powerful cocktail of lunacy.

Cannes is all about making an impact; generating the buzz and the headlines that will ensure bums are firmly on cinema seats when the films finally come out later in the year. For The Expendables 3, with the aerial entry denied by the party-pooper insurers, the marketing team went for something else to attract attention. Tanks. Two former Soviet BTR-60s, to be precise, shipped over from a collector in the UK and into which the umpteen cast members of the film – including Arnie, Sly, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson – stood and waved as they trundled down the main road on Sunday morning. 

Apparently – so I was told – it was the first time foreign tanks had been allowed into France since WWII, although the original treads had been replaced so as “to not tear up the tarmac”. Seems reasonable. The Pamela Anderson backgammon affair – one of many events that have little to do with films yet come to take advantage of Cannes' heaving throng of journalists – sadly moved from yacht to shore following a storm warming, but still maintained the same level of ‘WTF’ peculiarity.

As guests tucked into an all-vegan buffet, the former Baywatch favourite talked about animals for her new charity, The Pamela Anderson Foundation, while Vivienne Westwood rambled on about the environment and farmyard practices. It was all very well-meaning stuff, but given the hours of revelry beforehand I very much doubt many of the attendees could remember much of it the next morning. cannes1 The Cannes insanity didn’t stop there. Following another strange call, the following afternoon I find myself in a hotel room attempting to entertain a clearly jetlagged Ed Norton with questions for 10 minutes. Sadly, he quickly puts down my attempts to discuss Fight Club 2, blaming journalists such as myself for sparking the rumours and assuring me that “nobody involved in Fight Club is talking about it”. He looked rather grumpy, so I didn’t dare suggest that not talking about Fight Club was, of course, the first rule of Fight Club.

A few minutes later I spy Mads Mikkelson in front of the hotel lobby almost being attacked by a falcon someone had handed him for a publicity stunt (I’ve no idea what for), while later in the evening I’m offered a place at producer/agent Charles Finch’s famed (apparently) filmmaker’s dinner, where I was in easy entrée lobbing distance of Harvey Weinstein, Alfonso Cuaron, Naomi Watts, Gael Garcia Bernal and Gemma Arterton. At said event, Norton handed out a cheque for AED 370,000 to the charity FilmAid from whisky giants Chivas Regal, who were sponsoring the whole shindig. Possibly having had a swig or two beforehand, however, he accidentally thanked scotch rivals Dewar’s. Whoops. cannes4 But despite such celeb-strewn affairs, one shouldn’t start getting too comfy. Cannes is ruled by a strict hierarchy and anyone not a major Hollywood executive or personality lurks rather low in the food chain. Sure, I may have had an invite for one swanky affair one night, but two evenings later, despite PR assurances, I was certainly not on the all-important clipboard for another, and a towering bouncer eyeballed me as if I was some sort of semi-naked vagrant until I gave up.

It’s important to appreciate that Cannes isn’t all about elbowing Tinseltown’s finest at the buffet table or, indeed, attempting to get an invite to so-and-so’s yacht soiree. Some people come here simply for the films, and days can sometimes involve upwards of five viewings back-to-back (assuming the timetable is on your side). Press screenings themselves are curious affairs, places where opinions aren’t just scrawled unintelligibly into Moleskines but loudly voiced for the whole theatre to hear.

The festival’s opening film Grace of Monaco was greeted by enough jeers to suggest it was a comedy (it definitely wasn’t), while others, such as Ryan Gosling’s David Lynch-borrow- fest Lost River and the Ryan Reynolds- starring child-abduction misfire The Captive closed with genuine hisses and boos. The media reaction is clearly quickly relayed back to the filmmakers, and Reynolds was a no-show at his own party while Grace of Monaco director Olivier Dahan looked visibly shaken at the film’s press conference. Any questions that were put to him saw Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth put supportive hands on his back, seemingly in a ‘sure, the film was shit, but we’ll get through this together’ manner. cannes5 Hanging my head, I can confirm that I was among the jeerers for Kidman’s impressively wooden portrayal of the Hollywood queen turned European princess (a line from Charles De Gaulle in which he declared that he would send Monaco “back to the Stone Ages” was the tipping point). But when it came to other titles, what I thought veered drastically from the general consensus, and only served to underline my credentials as an art house amateur who ranks Monty Python and the Life of Brian among the greatest films ever made.

While I’m unlikely to generate much sympathy, Cannes is a truly exhausting experience. Not simply because of the long days (four hours sleep a night is considered something of a luxury) and endless parading up and down the Croisette, but also the sheer impossibility of doing everything you might want to do and the relentless nagging sensation that there’s something better, or at least crazier, going on elsewhere.

Sure, you might be watching Pammy play board games with Vivienne Westwood, but at that moment Angelina Jolie might well be judging a bear-baiting competition with Danny Devito, or Jean Claude Van Damme might be hosting a cocktail party on an inflatable hotdog with Optimus Prime and Axl Rose. And, knowing Cannes, they probably are.