The Farewell Party
High drama and lowbrow, morbid humor get stitched together in this successful tragicomedy about terminal patients and assisted suicide. Works better than expected.
Cannes, France – The television crew has appropriated the garden of the Majestic Hotel and is setting up a shot that will symbolize the atmosphere here on the day before the official opening of the 33rd annual Cannes International Film Festival. The shot shows film critic Rex Reed sitting alone at a table in the deserted garden in the rain, sipping from a glass of champagne. Behind him, the great swimming pool is empty. The deck chairs are stacked like firewood. The sky is gray and the waves are pounding sullenly against the beach.
“Irving!”' shouts Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter. “Brang’em on.” Silver Dollar Baxter is producing the television special that Reed is starring in. Baxter marches dripping wet into the Majestic bar, which overlooks the pool, and looks around for a waiter. “Irving!”
Silver Dollar Baxter has a simple theory that has served him well in his travels all over the world. That theory is that all waiters in all countries everywhere will respond to “Irving” if they expect a big enough tip. Baxter got his nickname by always coming to Cannes with 500 silver dollars to use as tips. The coins baffle Cannes waiters, who have never seen them before and cannot cash them at the coin exchange. Some of the Majestic’s veteran waiters must have hundreds of Baxter’s silver dollars by now.
A waiter nevertheless races to Baxter’s side with a glass full of scotch. “A little eye-opener,” Baxter says. “What do you think about the symbolism of this shot? A beauty, eh?”
What does it symbolize?
“I thought you’d never ask,” says Baxter. “It symbolizes Rex Reed sitting in the rain and drinking champagne. This TV show is already sold in 40 markets all over the world – our symbols gotta be understood in every language. How do you like our official identification tags?”
Baxter is referring to the gigantic plastic placard hanging around his neck. “World International Television Network,” it says. There are spaces on it for the bearer’s name, birth date, height, color of eyes and color of hair, plus a recent photo.
“World International,” Baxter chuckles. “That was my brainstorm – world ain’t enough. World International, that captures the exact note I’m looking for.”
He settles into a chair and peers out into the rain where Reed is still sipping his champagne. Robert, the Majestic’s veteran head bartender, comes over and watches the filming.
“Tomorrow it all starts,” he says, looking around the empty bar. “Tell me, Monsieur, do you think Mademoiselle Edy Williams will be here again this year?”
He is referring, of course, to the American starlet and sex symbol who endeared herself to Cannes two years ago by being driven nude all over town on the top of a sports car. One magical night, Edy Williams kissed Robert on both earlobes.
I do not think Mademoiselle Williams is coming this year, I tell Robert. I understand that Mademoiselle Williams is appearing on stage in San Francisco.
“She is in a theater show?”
Le striptease, I explain.
“Ooo, la-la,” says Robert. “When she was here, she have so few clothes, the striptease go on all the day long.”
“She was a nice little girl,” says Baxter. “All she needed was a few breaks. Remember when I bought all of her posters?”
“Oui, Monsieur,” says Robert.
“I bet you do,” says Baxter. “I bought 600 posters of Edy Williams and handed them out to the hotel staff as tips. They were expecting sliver dollars. Hee-hee.”
I left Baxter and Robert comparing notes on Edy Williams and contemplating Rex Reed in the rain, and walked on down the Croisette in the direction of the Carlton Hotel and the Palais du Cinema, the two landmarks during the festival. It was a little eerie to be here before the festival began: The town, caught with its posters down, looked more like a classic Mediterranean resort and less like Las Vegas. But that was changing even as I watched.
Bulldozers roared up and down the beaches, smoothing the sand. Crews erected gigantic billboards the length of the Croisette. Trucks filled with potted plants backed up to the Palais. And in the Carlton lobby, the correct British ladies who are permanent residents were ushered out of the lobby so that the ornate antique furniture could be replaced, for the duration, with cane and wicker chairs that could stand up under the festival onslaught.
No single film dominates this year’s festival the way Francis Ford Coppola’s controversial “Apocalypse Now” dominated last year’s. But there are two long-awaited entries by acknowledged world masters of the cinema, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Italy’s Federico Fellini. Both are among the most distinguished names in movie history, both have had uneven critical receptions recently, and both are back with films that everybody’s eager to see: Kurosawa with “Kagemusha,” which plays Wednesday, and Fellini with “Citta Della Donna,” his tribute to the women of Rome, which plays May 19.
The French are gratified, shall we say, that this year’s festival includes entries in competition from French directors. Three years ago, they were less than charmed that the official French entries were directed by U.S. expatriates Joseph Losey and Roman Polanski. There’s fevered anticipation surrounding “Sauve Qui Peut,” the first film in seven years by Jean-Luc Godard, the most influential French director of the 1960s. It plays May 21. Other major French filmmakers represented are Alain Resnais, with “Mon Oncle d’Amerique,” which plays May 20, and Bertrand Tavernier with “Une Semaine de Vacances,” playing Sunday.
Of the American entries, the most anticipation has been inspired by a comeback film, “The Big Red One,” directed by Samuel Fuller, starring Lee Marvin and playing Friday. Fuller is a cult hero to France’s auteur critics, who consider his B pictures of the 1950s to be masterpieces. Fuller made “Pickup on South Street,” “I Shot Jesse James” and other B classics before entering a period of inactivity in the 1970s. “The Big Red One,” billed as his own World War II story, is a big-budget epic that may be a festival sleeper.
Postmortem tributes to two great Hollywood directors are also planned: Alfred Hitchcock will be eulogized in the Palais du Cinema, and Nicholas (“Rebel Without a Cause”) Ray, who died in 1979, will be credited as co-director of “Lightning over Water,” a German new wave film by Wim Wenders, which plays Tuesday.
Many of these films will, of course, be rightly considered as artistic achievements. And yet, as the bulldozers shape the beaches and the billboards go up, one of the most charming things about Cannes remains the cheerful way it allows art, commerce and crass exploitation to coexist.
The same festival that will premiere the new Kurosawa film will play host to the Cannes marketplace, the movie trade fair that this year includes such offerings as “Dracula’s Last Rites” and “Hot T-Shirts.” Heated discussions about the price of artistic integrity will change suddenly into shocked discussions about the price of lunch. And if the skies ever clear and the starlets ever arrive, even Rex Reed is going to have to know someone if he wants to get a table in the garden of the Majestic Hotel.
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