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I have lunch with the mayor

inglorious_basterds_fake_movie_poster_onesheet.jpgThe premiere of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" will likely dominate the international press for days. The screening itself was a bit less than a crazy event than I had been expecting. After experiencing the wild, all-out adoration of Tarantino fans at a special Cannes screening of "Kill Bill I and II" some years ago, in which the audience consisted largely of French locals, I was prepared for anything.

The guards opened the Grand Theatre Lumiere a half-hour early, and even though I arrive at 7:55 am for the 8:30 am screening, it was already half full. Mild excitement was in the air, some cheers and applause were heard as the lights went down, and another smattering of applause when Tarantino's name appeared on the screen.

I was waiting for some kind of massive reaction at the end, but there really was nothing out of the ordinary. I've never been overwhelmed by Tarantino's films, although the crazed eclecticism of his work is a lot of fun. "Inglourious Basterds" worked for me as a satisfying whole better than most of his other films. He pulls together everything in his arsenal: action, extreme violence, misogyny, film history, pop music and pop culture, and a plot based on a wild premise that rewrites history.

Making the bad guys Nazis in "Inglourious Basterds" is a crafty move on Tarantino's part; it becomes the justification for virtually any act on the part of his good guys, including copious quantities of scalping, stabbing, clubbing, and machine-gunning. This also sets up guilt-free viewing on the part of his audience. Who's going to plead for mercy for Jew-hunting movie Nazis?

bradpitt.jpgBrad Pitt: Head basterd in charge

"Inglourious Basterds" is in widescreen and really worked the sound system to the max. Hearing Tarantino's soundtrack, much of it by Ennio Morricone, but including pop numbers like "The Green Leaves of Summer", I'm reminded just how incredible it is to see a film, any film, in either of the two main theaters of the Festival Palais. The screens are gigantic, the projection perfect, and the sound exceptional from every seat..

Today the international press corps was invited to the annual lunch hosted by the mayor of Cannes. It takes place in the courtyard next to the oldest church in town, on a rocky hill high above the town. The routine is the same every year and so is the menu, and I hope none of it ever changes. The tables are set for hundreds, and the guests are greeted by elderly town residents wearing wreaths of flowers and dressed in traditional costumes. The meal is simple but fantastically tasty: white fish, steamed zucchini, carrots, and potatoes, and heaping bowls of aioli, the garlic-infused mayonnaise of Provence. I got a kick out of watching the photographers lined up waiting for the jury. They were much more interesting to watch than the jury, and so I took a few pictures of them at work.

French director Alain Resnais, revered for early films including "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad", premiered "Wild Grass" ("Les Herbes Folles") for the press on Tursday night. To me it was the most magical film of the festival so far. Droll and witty, simultaneously youthful and wise, it's a beautiful evocation of the random irrationality of one man's love.

les-herbes-folles-2009-18073-1975850720.jpgAlain Resnais with Sabine Azéma on the set

Based on the novel "L'incident" by Christian Gailly, and shot in widescreen, the film is full of extraordinary images that are one with the flow of the story. A woman named Marguerite has her purse stolen, and the discarded wallet is later found in a parking garage by an older man: a husband, father and grandfather named Georges. After a bit of fantasizing about what the woman might be like after examining her IDs, Georges turns the wallet in to the police station. The story really gets underway when George, who's an obsessive talker and seems a bit loony, becomes obsessed with Marguerite and begins stalking her. She reports him to the police but has second thoughts and begins stalking him out of a new need that has arisen from their early encounters. Her best friend becomes involved. George's wife indulges the odd happenings as normal, and a farcical sequence in their living room precedes a finale that should be grave and sobering but is strangely light.

I had to marvel at how evident it is that Resnais enjoyed making this film. The luscious sequence in a shoe store when Marguerite goes shopping could be a shoe-festishist's delight. He lingers on details of décor and fashionable dress. Marguerite's wild, bright-auburn hair dominates many a shot. Resnais likes sleek surfaces, beautiful textures, and burnished light, and demonstrates an indulgent affection for his characters in all their romantic foibles.

<a href=Johnnie To.JPG" class="mt-image-left" style="float: left; margin: 0 20px 20px 0;">Johnnie To: Always sit so you're facing the room A festival press release made available only in French announced that Hong Kong director Johnnie To, here with "Vengeance" in competition, was made an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) by the Republic of France on Monday. To's connections to France and French cinema are varied, including his casting of French stars Johnny Hallyday and Sophie Testud in "Vengeance", and his longtime admiration of the work of Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville.

I jumped at the chance to attend a press roundtable with To. It was held on a small terrace on the seventh floor of the Majestic Hotel, with one of the grandest views in Cannes at the director's back. He was dressed like a Hong Kong movie gangster in designer shades, and an iridescent plum-colored suit with matching shirt. On his left hand he wore a massive ring sparkling with dozens of small diamonds.

On the subject of gangsters, he said: "I've never been a gangster myself, but the Triad society was very much a part of Hong Kong history. The gangster is very much a part of life in Hong Kong, so making a movie about them is every bit as normal as making a film about doctors and nurses."

Cannes greeters.JPGLocals in costume to greet the jury (Barbara Scharres)

"Vengeance", which also stars Johnnie To regulars Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, and Lam Suet as hitmen (no surprise there), was one of the films to which I'd been looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, after his latest string of superb and seemingly flawless features including "Election" (I and II), "Exiled", and "Sparrow", I found the film uneven, dragged down by its framing story of the murder of a family, and by a sentimental conclusion that borders on trite. Even so, "Vengeance" has some amazing set pieces, including a gun battle in a park by moonlight, and another in a garbage dump where huge rolling bales of paper are used as shields by the combatants.

The biggest risk To took, casting a Western star who doesn't speak Cantonese with Chinese stars who don't speak French or English, actually works beautifully, and there is a warmth to the camaraderie that is unusual in To's work. Although I don't count "Vengeance" among his best, it's still a film that anyone who follows Johnnie To's work will want to see.

The day after seeing "Antichrist" by Lars von Trier, I passed a beggar sitting cross-legged in one of the narrow streets that leads from the rue d'Antibes to the Palais. He was a dead-ringer for von Trier. With von Trier's past history of outrageous Cannes antics, including setting fire to one of his awards on the beach, it occurred to me that this might be some new experiment in human manipulation on his part. I guess I could have gone up and said, Lars, is that you? But I didn't.

sketch.jpgJane Campion's story board for "Bright Star"

On Sunday, I participated in press roundtables for Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" and Jane Campion's "Bright Star." The "Taking Woodstock" people were so nice that I was wishing I had liked the film better. Surprisingly, it's a so-so comedy that never transcends the fact that the main event, the concert itself, can't be shown. This reminds me of a Chinese film I saw years ago in which, presumably for budgetary reasons, the climactic battle scene takes place over a hill out of view, while the camera focuses on a close-up of a horse tied up in the foreground.

Demetri Martin, who plays "Taking Woodstock" main character, and Emile Hirsch, who plays a supporting role, were both unassuming young men who clearly hadn't been doing the star/red carpet thing for long, and it was refreshing to see.

"The last time I wore a tuxedo was when I was a busboy in my parents' diner in Beachwood, New Jersey," said Martin. "I'm such an ugly American I ordered the American breakfast," said Hirsch. Martin asked I he could switch his roll for the one on my plate because his had seeds on it and mine was plain. Sure, I said, I haven't touched it. Soon the publicists move the two actors to the next table, but Martin comes running back; "Would you guys mind if I take my butter? He asked? The Canadian journalist sitting next to me mumbled, "Did he think we were going to eat it?"

jury.JPGOnly at Cannes do film festival jurors have paparazzi

Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus are now cycled to my table. Schamus is relaxed and all smiles. Lee seems like a very sad and quiet man. "Coming to Cannes with a comedy is like wearing a target on your back," says Schamus. Lee is oddly downbeat for a man who's experienced so much success in his career, explaining that he wanted to make a comedy in order to "Commit to happiness." "I hope I can dig myself out from the trench, to learn to be happy making a movie," he says.

Remembering Lee's very first feature "The Wedding Banquet", I ask if he was happy when he made that film. He replies that he was, "But I though if I let myself enjoy it, something bad would happen" I go off to the "Bright Star." interview event looking for happier filmmakers. The film is the story of the courtship between the English romantic poet John Keats and a small-town beauty. Keats is sickly and destitute, not a good catch for his time.

First our table of eight journalists gets the film's stars Abbie Cornish (aka Ryan Philippe's girlfriend) and Ben Whishaw, one at a time. Cornish arrives half an hour late, and some of the journalist's at my table are star-struck, dropping Philippe references and hoping she'll open up about her life outside of "Bright Star". She doesn't; she won't; and she tells them so, but nicely.

_45694714_brightstar1_466x300.jpgBen Whislaw and Annie Cornish as John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Cornish's character in "Bright Star", which takes place in 1818, is a skilled seamstress who designs her own dresses. "Is this beautiful dress your own creation?" the European journalist sitting next to her asks, referring to Cornish's Catherine Maladrino white lace sheath. "Yes, I made it all by hand," she responds teasingly.

Ben Whishaw is ultra-skinny, with tousled dark hair. He wears a striped Muti T-shirt and a black cardigan, which he keeps pulling closer as if for protection. I ask if he's getting used to the exposure of Cannes. "I come and go with it," he said. "I find this kind of thing enjoyable because we're just having a conversation, but when you have to sit in front of someone for five minutes and they ask three questions, then someone else comes in and they ask the same three questions, hour after hour after hour, it's hard. It's part of the job, and you have to have a sense of humor, but it's not always easy to achieve."

Finally, director Jane Campion comes our way, and she's relaxed and forthright. There are no pretensions, no airs. She speaks frankly about taking four years off from directing to stay home with her daughter. It becomes evident that her personal interests in the handiwork of women have had an influence on the meticulous, historically accurate, and very beautiful production design of her. She tells us that she collects handmade tablecloths, and began embroidering pillowcases in her four-year hiatus. "When I see these things women have made, I feel close to them," she said.

Campion's film is about love, and on the subject of love she is rather eloquent, saying more than you really expect in this sort of press event: "Those two [her characters] have a remarkable first love, the kind you dream of. I never really had it, but at least I get to have it vicariously through these two...Love, and I don't mean romantically anymore, a warm feeling towards the world, towards anything, it's the most powerful thing in the world. That we can actually have those feelings is so magical to me. I think it transcends personality, it transcends ego, it connects everybody."

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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