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Cannes 2016: Palme de Whiskers

After twelve exhausting Cannes Film Festival days, in which jury cats padded silently and undetected through the Palais des Festivals and whisked around all the hidden corners of the Marché du Film, it’s time for the festival’s most glorious event. Yes, it’s the awarding of my fantasy prize, the coveted Palme de Whiskers for Best Feline Performance. In a better world, this would be real.

Cats representing every nation are arriving at this moment at the Palais des Kittycats on the Cannes seafront.  Exquisitely appointed swinging cat-doors at every entrance assure that only feline celebrities will sashay down this exclusive catnip-scented red carpet. This year’s security regulations dictate that guests must come in their birthday suits, causing a momentary howl of protest among those who had brought new, jeweled collars for the occasion, and had promised celebrity endorsements to Chopard and Bulgari. 

As an additional security measure, the FFFA (Feline Film Festivals Authority) made an unprecedented alliance with selected members of the canine species for guard dog duty around the Palais des Kittycats. Volunteers include Policia, the feral-looking German Shepherd from the Romanian film “Dogs.” She’s actually quite sweet, despite having to appear disemboweled in the film. Stepping up for duty also is Marvin, the long-faced bulldog from “Paterson,” who confessed to artistic differences with director Jim Jarmusch, who callously rejected his suggestion to feature him in the act of destroying the film’s notebook of cringe-worthy poetry.

The jury deliberations are top secret, but let’s creep behind the scenes and see what’s going on. Hailing from Los Angeles are longtime jury members Nico and Chubbs, representing Vogue critic John Powers and novelist Sandi Tan. Nico, a Siamese, had a fit when her owners didn’t plan to take her to Cannes this year. She tapped out the ticket purchase online with a pointy claw when they weren’t looking. Poor Chubbs had to stuff his stripy bulk into a coach seat, but of course she got first class for herself because she’s a purebred. 

Fluffing his enormous tail with pride, even though he’s not really a Maine Coon Cat, first-time jury member Prince represents Toronto Film Festival’s Programs Manager Magali Simard. Layla, a luscious calico diva representing Amy Taubin of Film Comment, follows Prince into the jury room. Layla immediately protests with a snarl that there are no mirrors in the room. None of them is sure what to make of Gus, in his black-and-white tuxedo, representing Art Basel’s film curator Marian Masone, because he’s already taking a catnap in paper bag. “Jet lag,” he murmurs contentedly.

Bob, the big tabby sent by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, pads in on his great white paws, sighing that he’s sore all over. His housemate Bill, who served on last year’s Palme de Whiskers jury, was so angry to be passed over this time around that he bit Bob’s neck in rage. Finally, Dali, the lovely jury president, slinks in, having just arrived from Croatia. Last year, as winner of the first-ever Kittycat Peace Prize for her role in “The High Sun,” she was just a shy barn cat. The Cannes experince infused her with a new sophistication, as evidenced by the high gloss of her orange-and-white coat.

Time to get down to business. Layla tore herself away from looking at her own reflection in a water bowl to declare that human females and cats have something in common in this year’s Cannes film selection. “They’re always being manhandled and dragged around,” she complained. “Like that nice little tabby in ‘American Honey,’ who was dangled from the arm of a careless kid.” Prince dips his paw in the water bowl to test the temperature, as he pipes up in his squeaky voice: “What about that big grey cat in the Israeli film “Personal Affairs?” He gave a great purr-formance after he was yanked out from behind a couch.” 

“That hulking tomcat in Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ made it through unscathed, and had a hefty speaking part too,” remarks Chubbs helpfully, “He had to watch a lot of bad stuff that the humans were up to, as well as jump on Isabelle Huppert’s chest.” “Yeah, and he almost got to eat a bird, except that Isabelle took it away from him,” adds Nico, smacking her lips at the thought.

“At least we cats weren’t being bloodied up and killed all the time, like the human females,” snorts Bob, his white whiskers quivering. “True, some cats were even treated quite nicely,” says Gus sleepily, referring to the marmalade cat who sat on the heroine’s bed in Spielberg’s “The BFG.” "Not CGI again,” howls Layla; “I’ve had it with virtual cats; aren’t there enough of us of every shape, size and color to do the job for real?”

Prince, whose sympathies lie with realistic street-cat performances, owing to the fact that he was abandoned on the street as a newborn, brings the jury’s attention to the lively ensemble of black-and-white strays scuttling through the Brazilian film “Aquarius.” “Not much going on there,” sniffs Bob. “Big deal: they ran around a garage and up and down some stairs!”

Nico and Chubbs helpfully suggest that the jury is overlooking the gems to be found in the Marché du Film. Despite being distracted by the mice scampering around in the recycling bins, they wandered silently among the market stands searching for cat colleagues. Nico champions the brown-coated star of the German film “Tomcat.”  “What a hunk,” she mews, casting a baleful green eye at out-of-shape Chubbs lounging on the next blanket. 

“Well I found one too, “ chortles Chubbs.  “Who could resist a little female kitty dying of cancer in a romantic comedy?” he says, referring to the trailer for “How to Break Up with My Cat,” seen at a Korean film stand. “No fair,” protests Gus, “That film is still in production.” And so it goes until the secret ballot is taken and the jury members strut out onto the stage before the feline world’s high society, where they take their seats on velvet cushions playfully emblazoned with a mouse motif.

My own Miss Kitty, her red-tinged tabby fur gleaming, is once again Mistress of Ceremonies. “Have you reached a decision, Madam President?” she squeaks throatily to Dali. Amid a hush, in which not even the lowest purr can be heard, Dali pads up to the mic. “The 2016 Palme de Whiskers goes to Rocky, of Chlöe Sevigny’s short film 'Kitty,' for his female-impersonating role as the cat a little girl transforms herself into." The gathered cats love it, and appreciative purring roars through the hall!

A compact grey mackerel tabby with thick plush fur and yellow eyes, Rocky jumps to the stage and gives Dali a lick on the cheek, clutching to his broad chest with a sturdy paw the trophy, with its elegant spray of 18K gold whiskers on a crystal base. Thanking director Sevigny, he credits his moving performance to being a highly trained method actor. “Given the sensitivity of my role, I made sure my rear end was never turned to the camera,” he confides.

There’s one more award this year, announces Dali. It’s the second annual Kittycat Peace Prize. It goes to the stray-cat ensemble from Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.” What a surprise! Having just arrived in the nick of time straight from Tehran, Mrow, a handsome white tom with startling black ears, leaps to the stage and humbly accepts on behalf of his colleagues, who include an adorably fluffy kitten. “It’s the first time Iranian felines have been recognized at Cannes,” he acknowledges, “Especially those of us from the lowest social order.” Mrow hopes it won’t be the last.

Pungent whiffs of the buffet of assorted local fish are wafting through the Palais des Kittycats, and the audience is getting restless. Meanwhile, romance looks to be in the offing. Prince sidles up to Dali with the line that he too knows what it means to suffer, even if he didn’t live in a war zone. Chubbs sneaks away from Nico and heads in Miss Kitty’s direction. It’s another fine year at Cannes!

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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