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Cannes Film Festival

Cannes - What a movie it would make Cannes, France - Any list of the world's most improbable fort­nights would have to include the Cannes Film Festival. For two weeks in this little resort town on the Mediterranean, one of the strangest possible mixtures of humanity gathers to buy, sell, criticize and perhaps even see hundreds of movies. Some of the people are very rich, and live on private yachts anchored offshore. Others are very poor and sleep on the beach. A great many of the people are very pretty girls who are always somehow deeply tanned (all over) by the middle of May. A great many more are sallow-faced film buffs who will never be tanned so long as there is a matinee anywhere in the world. Something like 35,000 people started gathering in Cannes on Friday for this year's festival, which runs through May 27. There are only about 3,000 seats in the Palais du Cinema, the theater in which the official entries are screened, but that doesn't mean 9 out of 10 people will be disappointed in their attempts to see the movies. There are people who come to Cannes year after year and never see an official entry, because the two dozen or so entries are such a small part of the festival as a whole. There's also, very importantly, the Cannes film marketplace. Every one of the dozen or so private movie theaters in Cannes is rented around the clock by producers or nations eager to find buyers for their films. Last year, for example, the Swedes and the Australians got together to split two weeks at a prestigious theater near the Palais, and papered the town with posters advertising their products. Where but in Cannes can you see the premieres of nine Australian movies in six days? Some of the films in the marketplace are very serious indeed, and some are el cheapo sleazo sexploitation films. But the dedicated Cannes-goer is a democrat: I remember last year attending a screening of Jeanne Moreau's “Lumiere” and then strolling down the street to check out “Ilsa, Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks”. The grade B (and Z) films were especially big last year because the prestigious Edinburgh Film festival was going to do a tribute to the exploitation film and so you had the curious spectacle of Edinburgh and London film intellectu­als, members of the selection committee, hurrying because they were late for “Fantasex”. Apart from the official entries and the marketplace, there are several other programs screening simultaneously. There are, for example, the Critics' Week and the Directors' Fort­night, and the series called “Air Du Temps,” made up of documentaries, and the series called “Les Yeux Fertiles,” or “fertile eyes,” made up of films based on plays, and even the series called “The Composed Past,” consisting of films made out of other films. Something like 400 films will be shown altogether and one of the daily rituals is to meet for coffee and croissants in Le Petit Carlton, a cheap little bar behind the Palais du Cinema, and scan the daily festival bulletin. It's like a tip sheet for horse players: It lists everything showing everyday, in and out of competition, and the trick is to arrange your schedule so that you can see six to eight films before midnight and have a great lunch and check out the girls on the beach. I mentioned that some people go to Cannes and never see an official entry. Other people go to Cannes and never see a movie at all. That is because (a) they don't have tickets or passes, and are in town for the excitement, or (b) they're there to be seen, or (c) because they are so prestigious that it would be beneath their dignity to attend a screening. In the first category are the fans, who lunge enthusiastically against the police barricades as Claudia, Cardinaie or Yves Montand turns up for a premiere (fans don't give a damn for directors and there is little lunging even for a Polanski or a Truffaut). In the second category are the stars, or would-be stars (since Silvia Simone, topless, embraced Robert Mitchum at the 1951 festival, there has been an unofficial annual competition for the Topless Starlet of the Year). And in the third category are the people who have made their bundle and figure that if you got it, flaunt it. Last year, for example, Richard Zanuck and David Brown threw a cold salmon, caviar and champagne buffet for about 200 people on the Carlton Hotel's private beach. The occasion? Well, Zanuck and Brown had produced “Jaws”, the most profitable movie ever made. “Jaws” had already made its millions, but the buffet was a way of flaunting it. Or, as Brown, with his wife Helen Gurley Brown at his side, said, “I thought I'd take my wife out to lunch.” The classy parties are the ones thrown by people who've already made their movie fortune this year. The most energetic parties are the ones thrown by people publicizing how they're gonna make their bundle next year. Ilya and Alexander Salkind, for example, took over a three-star restaurant last year to announce that they had signed Marlon Brando to play the father in “Superman”. (This fact had already sort of leaked out, thanks to the 100-foot banner being towed behind the airplane the Salkinds had hired to fly up and down the beach all day, but never mind, the soup was sublime.) There are also the just plain crass parties: Harold Robbins took over a nightclub to announce that he had signed Omar Sharif to star in “The Pirate”, and, in one of the year's most memorable observations, Rex Reed looked at the buffet (soggy salami sandwiches on white bread) and said, “Back home, if you don't have enough money to go first class, the least you can do is say you bring the chips and I'll bring the dip.” I mentioned the Carlton Hotel. No report on Cannes would be complete without a mention of the Carlton Hotel's bar and veranda, where all of the deals are signed and all of the people in category (c), above, gather for their afternoon cocktails. One pot of tea at the Carlton costs $7, as I learned one year to my horror. There are people lining up to pay it. Bizarre sights are common: Last year there were three Marilyn Monroe imitators at the bar at once. One of them was even female. Not all the bizarre sights are quite as you might think. I remember the time, for example, when a young man and a large dog walked into the Carlton bar and both sat down at a booth. The young man ordered a Campari and soda for himself and champagne for his dog. The maitre 'd, mortally offended, hurried over to tell the young man he had to be wearing shoes. Down the beach a few blocks is the other key watering place, the American Bar of the Majestic Hotel. Why is it called the American Bar? I've never been sure, but one year I ordered a glass of white wine and was told, respectfully but firmly, that no wine at all was served because it was, after all, the American Bar. In the midst of the chaos, good films do get screened at Cannes, and reputations are made, art is served, and the official jury solemnly ponders the entries. This year's Ameri­can juror is the critic Pauline Kael, who will perhaps be able to explain the ways in which the jury operates: Its workings have always been a little unclear. Last year, for example, the jury chairman was Tennessee Williams. He called a press conference to denounce the violence in the films. The front-runner in festival gossip immediately became Eric Rohmer's “The Maquise of ‘O’”, a gentle and civilized film. But no, the winner was “Taxi Driver”, the most violent film in competition. You never know. As Groucho Marx said in 1972, after attending the Cannes festival and being decorated as a member of the French Institute of Arts and Letters: “Thanks a lot. I always wanted to be a Cannes-man.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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