I had intended to keep a daily blog in Cannes but the festival overwhelmed me. It was easily the most enjoyable Cannes in 25 years with each day bringing great films and great weather. However not all the films were great. Early on we watched Jane Campion’s Bright Star.
There are few stories as sad as that of John Keats. When he died in Rome in 1821 at 25 of consumption, he thought himself an abject failure and asked that his grave bear the simple inscription “here lies one whose name was writ on water”. In fact once dead both his poetry and the terrible story of his death became a staple of the Victorian imagination. Part of that story is his secret engagement to Fanny Brawne to whom he poured out, in some the greatest letters ever written in English, both his theory of poetry and the ambivalence and ambiguity of his attraction to Fanny.
James Campion’s biopic of Keats and Fanny, his ‘bright star’ has nothing to do with ambivalence or ambiguity nor indeed has it that distance from its characters essential to historical fiction. At no point does Campion let either the letters or the terribly spoken poetry breathe. Her camera has to emphasise every line while the pedestrian script turn Fanny and Keats into a couple of modern lovers who unaccountably never get around to exchanging bodily fluids.
It is clear that Abbie Cornish who plays Fanny has the presence to become a major figure in the cinema but Ben Whishaw struggles in a role that never begins to capture Keats’s obsession with death and his desire to ‘cease upon the midnight with no pain’. As if to underline the film’s oafishness, there is no quotation from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian urn, the poem that captures most perfectly his ambiguity about Fanny. I have great difficulty when teaching this poem to make students understand why Keats can prefer the bold lover on the urn who will ‘never never’ kiss to the ‘breathing human passion’ which leaves a heart ‘high sorrowful and cloyed’ but it can be safely said that Campion’s film doesn’t even attempt such a difficulty. After the film I learn that Bright Star was funded by the UKFC’s New Cinema Fund, the institutional successor to the BFI Production Board. That these monies are being used to fund established directors making conservative period pieces with no sense of history tells you everything you need to know about the moral and cultural bankruptcy of New Labour. But there is little time to dwell on the state of England although the papers each day bring fresh news of revolution and Flavia on the phone tells me that I am missing the biggest political story of our lifetime.
In Cannes the films continue to unspool, Audiard’s A Prophet is set in a jail but it is a Mafia rather than a prison movie. Its unknown star Tahar Ramin moves from humiliated underling to gang boss in a multi-lingual haze of violence. Ramin is set, if I’m any judge, for French superstar status. One who has achieved that over five decades is Johnny Hallyday and he turns in a magnificent performance in Johnnie To’s Vengeance. I say ‘performance’ but what Hallyday lends to the movie is his unbelievably ravaged features in which every pleasure and every vice is written deeply into his face. The face is as extraordinary in the flesh and my Cannes is made when I am introduced to him after the evening screening and mumble my congratulations.
Filipa Cesar has come down for a couple of days to sample the world of film and for us to discover whether we really share the same taste in film. Every film is followed by detailed discussion and I could spend all evening exploring the films of the day. Filipa, however, is a young person and she wants to go to a party. As a good host I provide and we go with Hanif to the Woodstock bash. Remarkably this is even less fun than the well-meaning but lack luster Ang Lee film and, quite remarkably, the music is terrible. I now feel that I am failing as a host but I’m rescued the next night by Jeremy Thomas’s Hanway films who are throwing a party for Nowhere Boy, a film about the young John Lennon which is in production. Jeremy throws the best parties and this is no exception. The music, all from the sixties, is excellent and within minutes Filipa has disappeared onto the dance floor. I find myself sitting next to Michael White, one of the greatest theatre producers of his generation and no slouch in the film business either having produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail and all the Comic Strip films. Michael has had a stroke and talking to him is relatively difficult but he continues to be a totally committed party animal and, as usual, he has the most beautiful women in the room sitting at his table. One blonde and one black, they are striking not only for their looks but also for their height – about 6ft 5inches. I ask them why they are both so tall and they reply, “We’re an experiment”. They are obviously desperate to dance and eventually to my astonishment I get them onto the floor and for the first time in ten years I’m dancing. The next time I look at my watch it is 3 o’clock (over two hours after my absolutely latest bedtime). The party will riot onto dawn but I walk home astonished at how much I have enjoyed myself. I revise this opinion the next morning at 7.30 when I have to carry out several technical checks to ensure that I’m not dead. Later the trades will vote the party a hit and comment on the fact that Hanway had hired a dancing bear for the proceedings. The early film is Loach’s Looking for Eric. I have admired Loach as a director all my life but his films about the past I loathe with a rare passion. Luckily this film is about the present and is a wonderful self-help film with Eric Cantona acting as a life coach to a postman whose family and work relations are in a mess. It is a touching and funny film with a simple ideological message: “the people united will never be defeated” – it’s very good to see a Communist film that one can applaud.
Filipa departs and I revert to early nights. The films continue to enchant – a charming Almadovar with a luminous Penelope Cruz and, then, in perhaps the most emotional moment of the festival the 87 year old Alain Resnais comes to present Les Herbes Folles (Wild Grass). When he enters the cinema, the applause goes on forever. As indeed it should. Here is the man who first showed Andre Bazin the history of film; the man who made Les Statues meurent aussi with Chris Marker and whose Hiroshima, Mon Amour completely altered the artistic ambitions of cinema. Les Herbes Folles is a charming middle aged love story, although the last two minutes seem to come from another film and, like several of the movies that I’ve seen here, I’m going to have to go and see it again.
My next guest is my daughter Johanna who has come to every festival since she was 11 in 1986. She loves Cannes unlike her mother, who was banned after her second visit in 1990, when, upon being introduced to Isabella Rossellini and Nicholas Cage at the Wild at Heart party, looked at her watch and said “It’s 10.30 time for bed”. Johanna is determined to go up the red carpet so I miss the noon screening of the Hanneke film and we see The White Ribbon at the evening performance. Hanneke is one of my all time favourite directors but this story of a Protestant village in Northern Germany in the year before the outbreak of the First World War is his masterpiece. As I have got older Europe’s suicide in 1914 seems more and more the defining historical event of our era, and Hanneke’s film makes a major contribution to diagnosing Europe’s terminal state. I am also delighted for a more prosaic reason, Michael Barker of Sony Classics, who are the US distributors of the film, has agreed to come and talk at Pittsburgh in the Fall and, with any luck, he’ll bring this film with him.
Now the festival is beginning to wind down but no final Friday would be complete without the dejeuner des cinephiles on the Carlton Beach. This was Hercules Belleville’s lunch and for the preceding ten days he would be cajoling and entreating friends judged suitably cinephiliac to come. Truth to tell the last Friday is a terrible day for a lunch and there was always a crisis as to whether enough cinephiles would turn up. Paula Jalfon (BFI colleague 1988-1998, co-owner and chief executive of Minerva Pictures 1998-2002) and I have decided to continue the tradition and we have a table Herc would have loved: Tom Luddy of Zoetrope and Talluride, Mark Cousins, critic extraordinaire, Joumane Chahine, Lebanese film journalist, Johanna and her friend Linda Palaane. The talk is of all the wonderful films and if the eyes well once or twice, what are a few tears among friends. I vow to repeat the lunch as long as I come to Cannes and then while some go off to the Gaspar Noe – I head for my first swim of the festival with my daughter.
There’s just a final breakfast with Larry Kardish of MOMA to discuss a planned retrospective on Stephen Frears and Cannes 2009 is over for me.
Normally I leave on the Friday after the dejeuner des cinephiles but Jeremy Thomas has invited me to drive back with him. We became good friends when he was Chairman of the BFI and the friendship has grown as New Labour has destroyed the Institute we both loved. I am, however, a trifle apprehensive. Jeremy is a petrolhead and drives at speeds that reduce any nervous passenger, and I am a very nervous passenger, to a groveling wreck. He reassures me by telling me that he is driving his Audi saloon rather than the Austin Martin. This turns out to be a completely false reassurance as it is an Audi salon with a racing car engine and racing car suspension. However Jeremy is such a good driver that I’m probably safer in a car with him at 90 mph than driving myself at 25.In any case Jeremy, a man more dedicated to pleasure than any I have ever met, has planned a meticulous journey along the Route Napoleon with stunning vista after stunning vista as we race through the Basses Alpes. Luckily the French have just enacted a new rule that if you are traveling 50 kiliometres an hour over the relevant speed limit then you go straight to jail, and this places some restraint on Jeremy’s use of the accelerator. The route Napoleon is so-called because it is the route than Napoleon took when he escaped from Elba, landed at Cannes and headed for Paris. Every other village proclaims “ Napoleon slept here” but in fact he made good speed to Grenoble where the regiment dispatched to arrest him, proclaimed him emperor still. Then it was the 100 days in Paris and the final encounter with Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo where for the first time in 20 years the Old Guard gave ground and Napoloeon’s domination of Europe was finally ended.
These thoughts are interrupted by the need to lunch but we have left it a lttle late and I have to use all my charm and French to persuade a small restaurant to feed us. Eventually I agree that they will serve us their basic menu which is duck pate, duck, and potatoes cooked in duck fat. As we exit, Jeremy , whose uncle directed all the Carry On movies and whose life is devoted to quoting and inventing Carry On dialogue opines “We ducked up”. By 8 we are in Lyons and the miracle of GPS takes us to a hotel right in the very middle of the old city where a Jesuit college has been transformed into the most comfortable of hotels. The next day is yet more of the same as we speed through the Champagne country and up towards Calais. Pierre Edelman ( with whom Paula and I tried to make a film from a Jean Binta Breeze script in 2000) rings through with the prizes from Cannes. Hanneke, the Palm d’Or, Audiard, the Grand Jury prize. Prizes also for Fish Tank and Alan Resnais. A perfect end to a perfect festival. I ring Marie Pierre Hauville ( Head of Communication at Cannes and close friend since we took 7 Century of Cinema films to the festival in 1995) to thank her for all her help and waspish comments. Paula also phones through and asks how the drive went. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets La Grande Bouffe”, I say. Without missing a beat Paula says “ Cliff Richard for you and Meryl Streep for Jeremy, “Outrageous “ growls Jeremy and we trundle onto the Eurostat and glide into London. And so to bed.