For the past seven years, I have felt a twinge of nostalgia every time the Cannes Film Festival returns to the Riviera. My mind always races back to those two unforgettable weeks in May 2007, when I signed up to attend the festival with a group of my fellow peers from Columbia College Chicago. We were assigned to work during the day at the American Pavilion and we had the option of attending screenings at night, though tickets were scarce. I saw Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant ascend the red carpet, shook hands with Michael Moore and Robert Duvall (who graced us with his priceless Brando impression), and welcomed David Cronenberg and Wong Kar Wai to the pavilion. You never knew who you were bound to bump into next. A friend of mine was tapped on the shoulder by a screen legend who introduced herself by saying, “Hello, I used to be Faye Dunaway.” She still was, by the way.
I suppose the logical thing for me to have done was bring along a digital camera and take a bazillion pictures of every mind-boggling sight I encountered, but frankly, I had no intention of being an amateur paparazzi and wanted to experience my time in the midday sun solely through the lenses of my eyes. Despite the fact that I took a handful of snapshots with a disposable camera, my most vivid memories are forever etched in my mind. I’ll never forget, for example, walking up the red carpet in my tux to see the premiere of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “The Banishment” at the Palais des Festivals. Gazing up at the towering screen on the main floor made it utterly impossible not to become immersed in the imagery. One memorable shot captured an amusing fit of playfulness between two children, who were photographed from the back (one of the kids slowly reaches over and taps the other, provoking a laugh).
Though leading man Konstantin Lavronenko would go on to win Best Actor that year, the performance that stuck with me was the one delivered by Maria Bonnevie, whose radiant appearance on the red carpet was projected live on the screen prior to her entrance in the theater. There was a scene in the film where she cried and cried and cried until her nose began to run and run and run…causing me to contemplate what it would be like to gaze at a close-up of my own runny nose in a packed auditorium. The most magical screening of all, however, took place on the beach and under the stars. A beam of light shot over my head, splashing David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” onto a massive outdoor screen as I dug my toes in the sand. Countless spectators of varying ages watched the film intently, laughing at all the bizarro bits, before rising at the finale to give a standing ovation that lasted the entire end credits roll. Boy do I love France.
No memory rivals the excruciating agony of dining with Stephen Frears, who had volunteered to eat mouthwatering ratatouille while fielding questions from a tableful of students. One excitable kid attempted to break the ice by asking, “So, what was it like directing your first film, ‘The Queen’?” Since Frears had been directing films well before that Oscar-winning biopic (his feature debut was in 1971), this question undoubtedly boiled his blood. Clearly discovering he had made a mistake, the kid said, “Please forgive my ignorance.” Frears waited a withering beat before replying, “That’s not ignorance, that’s bordering on stupidity.” The silence that followed was so deathly that my ratatouille, delicious as it was, threatened to travel back up my esophagus. I quickly raced through my mental IMDb page and blurted out, “I’ve always wanted to ask you about ‘High Fidelity.’” The crimson hue faded from Frears’s face and the dinner was saved.
When celebrities walked the red carpet, the entire town went into a tizzy of epic proportions. People hung from slender tree branches in order to get a better look at the cast of “Oceans 13” in all of their glamorous, overpaid glory. In a single microsecond, the mob of paparazzi parted and there was Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bidding adieu to the flashbulbs before roaring off in their limo. I laughed when I saw the typically grim faces of Joel and Ethan Coen pressed against the window of their car, gazing at the chaos outside. My journalistic integrity caused me to keep a cool head during all of these celebrity sightings, save for the moment when I strolled near the vibrantly colorful carousel (a staple of the Cannes landscape) and walked right past Julie Delpy, whom I had just seen in Richard Linklater’s “Before” pictures. I opened my mouth to say “hi,” but no sound came out. The air had left my lungs.
The greatest thrill in Cannes is listening to the smorgasbord of languages surrounding you in every screening room before the lights dim. If the movie is working, the universal power of its storytelling will elicit responses that transcend every cultural barrier, uniting a global assortment of strangers in shared exhilaration. That’s precisely what happened when I saw the Coen Brothers’ mesmerizing masterwork, “No Country for Old Men” at an encore screening in the last days of the festival. As Anton Chigurh, the killer with a jack-o’-lantern for a face and a cattle gun for a weapon, Javier Bardem held the audience in the palm of his hand. After the scene where Anton flips a coin to decide the fate of a bewildered convenience store worker, the audience broke out into spontaneous applause as if they were attending a theater production. I turned to my friend and said, “That guy is going to win the Oscar.” And he did.
The man sitting onstage was Martin Scorsese. He was there to discuss his career for a couple hours, while clips from his films were projected behind him. My perch from the balcony afforded me an excellent view not only of the stage but of the audience below. The most intriguing attendee was Quentin Tarantino, whose infamous banana-shaped head stood out from the crowd like a piercing crescent moon on an otherwise murky evening. Brett Ratner was seated a few rows away from him and gesticulated wildly in a failed attempt at claiming Tarantino’s attention. As Scorsese spoke, Tarantino got his hands massaged by female companions seated on either side of him. Halfway through the lecture, Tarantino flipped his hands over and the massage continued. Try as I might to permanently terminate this image from my memory bank, the residue remains to this day.
And now we come to my favorite story, the one in which I briefly befriend Malcolm McDowell. He was the most devoted inhabitant of the American Pavilion, greeting me at my routine post near the front entrance with the faux exclamation, “YOU’RE still here?!” Occasionally he’d slide his arm around my shoulder and ask, “Please sir, would you be so kind as to assist me with my Wi-Fi?” When Malcolm McDowell is staring you straight in the face, it is impossible to do anything other than comply with his wishes. So when he invited me to a screening of his new documentary, “Never Apologize,” I immediately cleared out the necessary space in my schedule. Tarantino showed up (sans masseuse) and sat right behind me, letting out his familiar cackle whenever anyone acknowledged his presence. The film was terrific and I made a point of thanking McDowell for inviting me afterward. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized McDowell had quoted me on his film’s official site, selecting an excerpt published as part of Columbia’s festival coverage…
“A regular visitor at the American Pavilion, Malcolm McDowell is a supremely intelligent and fiercely funny individual who deserves to be remembered as more than ‘Alex from ‘A Clockwork Orange’’ or ‘that guy from ‘Heroes.’’ The iconic actor emerges as a singular force of nature in director Mike Kaplan’s impeccably edited recording of McDowell’s riveting one-man stage show. For two hours, the charismatic performer pays tribute to his dear friend, the late filmmaker Lindsay Anderson (who directed McDowell in ‘If…’ and ‘O Lucky Man!’). His stories are alternately hilarious, chilling, and ultimately moving.”
A Lucky Man was I indeed.