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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Bold and beautiful show their Cannes-do spirit

The following article was originally published on May 24th, 1998.

CANNES, France -- There are no taxis to be had in the whole of Cannes. The hotel clerk, she throws up her hands in despair. One cannot walk all the way to the Moulin de Mougins, which is in the hills above town. Viola! Here is ze taxi! But it is ordered for Catherine Verret of the French Film Office. She, however, is also going to the Moulin, although first she must stop at the Martinez Hotel to see if Jeanne Moreau, the great film star, has found a ride.


We pile into the back seat and race off to the Martinez, where a human sea of movie fans surges against the barricades, and police direct the taxis at the fans' toes, a traditional French crowd-control device. Madame Moreau, she has already departed. We set off down the winding back streets. All of Cannes is on the move, up the hill to the famous AmFAR charity auction, dinner and celebrity mob scene.

There is serious money at this event. The dinner tickets alone have raised $500,000. To be sure, the dinner is worth such a fortune. It is by Chef Roger Verge, whose stuffed zucchinis are admired wherever zucchinis are violated, and whose pea soup is so splendid that if it needs a little salt, you simply weep into it with gratitude.

We begin in a huge tent in the garden of the Moulin. Bleachers have been erected for the TV cameras. Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder, Sigourney Weaver and Lena Olin pose for the cameras. So do Elton John, Jeanne Moreau, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Hurley and Chiara Mastroianni.

Here is Ringo Starr with his wife, Barbara Bach. Here is Pat Riley, who concedes that he would rather be coaching the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs, and explains that the plot of the Jerrys to alienate the Bulls is brilliant: "If everything was peaceful, the team might lose its edge. So the management insults them, and the team pulls together into a bunker mentality."

A band is playing. Sharon Stone mounts the podium and introduces the auctioneer from Christie's, who is going to raise huge sums of money for AIDS research. His strategy is to tell first one side of the room and then the other side of the room that they are not rich enough to bid against the big boys.

Everybody here is a big boy. Soon we (by "we" I mean "they") are bidding for solid gold amulets, and a necklace "encrusted with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds."

My wife and I examine the offerings in the silent auction, which are a little cheaper, ranging from a haircut by Jose Eber to a nude photograph by Francesco Scavullo of Burt Reynolds crouching on a bear rug ("value $3,500"). We bid on the 13-day luxury holiday in Thailand, which we agree will really give us greater pleasure in the long run than the Reynolds photograph.


I drift to the rear of the tent, where Kieran Culkin and Elden Henson are studiously pretending not to be seriously interested in Chiara Mastroianni, who looks like she could take the boy and give you back the man. Kieran and Elden are the teenage stars of "The Mighty," the film we have all just seen. Sharon Stone plays Kieran's mother. No jokes, please, about how after you make "Basic Instinct," you qualify to be a Culkin parent.

The kids are really nice. The movie is more than nice: Based on the enormously popular children's book Freak the Mighty, it is about a kid who is big and dumb, and another kid who is small and twisted but bright, and how through teamwork they deal with the world. We are discussing the movie when a shout goes up: Ringo Starr's drumsticks have just been auctioned off for $100,000.

Sharon Stone announces that Ringo and Sir Elton will play a duet. Everyone crowds around the stage.

"Let's play 'Twist and Shout,' " says Elton. "Why not one of your songs?" asks Ringo. "They might have heard of it." They play 'Twist and Shout.' Sharon Stone dances seductively in front of the piano.

Harvey Weinstein, the president of Miramax Films, which co-sponsors the AmFAR auction, sings along. The only lyrics he knows are when you go "Ah...ah...ah...AH!!!" He might be able to raise another $100,000 just by stopping. Stone announces $1.1 million was raised in the auction.

We go in to dinner. We are seated next to a window overlooking the garden. I recall thrillers in which men in ski masks burst into gatherings of rich people in tuxedos and steal their emerald, ruby, sapphire and diamond necklaces. Sometimes they take them all hostage. I can imagine the movie: "Moulin! They fought for the zucchini - and their lives!"

In the garden, I see gendarmes and plainclothesmen lurking in the shrubbery with rifles and cell phones. Next to them are rich people, lurking in the shrubbery with cigarettes and cell phones. In France, you do not have to go outside to smoke, but to call. This confuses the Americans, who are always answering their cigarettes.


We are given pea soup, stuffed zucchini, lamb chops and a towering dessert that looks inspired by a world's fair pavilion (the Profiterole of the Future). Harvey Weinstein comes to our table, which is where all the journalists are sitting, and subtly pumps us for information. We agree that the official competition is so weak that a better time can be had by staying in the hotel room and watching television.

How bad? We play a game, quoting the worst lines from this year's Cannes movies. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wins, with this line from the Russian film: "But - your mattress stinks of sausage!"

My losing entry is from "Meet the Deedles," a film starring Dennis Hopper as a man who trains prairie dogs to tunnel under Old Faithful to steal the geyser. He explains how he gets the rodents to cooperate: "Inject the soil with liquid kibble, and a-tunneling they will go!" I am disqualified because "Meet the Deedles" is not an official entry, although if it were, it might have a chance of winning something. If not the Palme d'Or, then maybe a photograph of Burt Reynolds.

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