- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

For the past few years, the word in the trade has been that Cannes, the grande dame of film festivals, was losing its luster. It was competing with too many other film festivals and showing too many self-indulgent art-house movies. Its obsolescence was perhaps best symbolized by its Palais de Festival, a sprawling brown concrete behemoth that resembles a vocational training center more than a showcase of international film.

Last Saturday, on the closing night of this year’s festival, on a beach next to the Palais de Festival, a few hundred well-dressed chosen ones gathered, at MGM’s expense, to watch fireworks and hear a parade of stars — Ashley Judd, Kevin Kline, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow — belt out Cole Porter tunes. A splashy homage to the studio’s festival entry, “De-Lovely,” a Cole Porter biopic starring Mr. Kline and Miss Judd, the bash featured a grand pavilion a hundred yards offshore, a full orchestra, multiple screens and all the champagne, lobster and jellified pate any human can endure.

With yachts glistening in the harbor and scores of searchlights scraping the night sky — and the much-sought-after entry bracelet securely on your wrist — it was relatively easy to forget all the “common” people who stood on the Croisette (boardwalk) above like gawking pigeons.

Therein lies perhaps the greatest irony of this year’s festival: Invitation-only glitz clashed jarringly with France’s egalitarianism and the informality of this year’s jury head, Quentin Tarantino.

On the Friday before the awards ceremony, the word on the street had the Palme d’Or going to “Motorcycle Diaries,” a road movie about a young Che Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado, traveling South America in the early 1950s. Even though Fidel Castro’s brother-in-arms is a perennial Hollywood and European fascination, a more topical populism trumped it.

Michael Moore snatched the coveted Palme d’Or with “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a documentary purporting to detail Bush family links to Osama Bin Laden and missteps in the war in Iraq. Mr. Moore, who seemed truly surprised by the turn of events — his was one of the few nonfiction films ever to win the Palme — protested (too much?) that the honor was not an anti-American dig. “This was not a French award,” he said at the press conference afterward. “It was an award given by a jury dominated by Americans.”

Although restrained — for him — in his polemic, Mr. Moore could not resist a swipe at President Bush. When asked what the president might think of this award, he said, “I hope no one tells him I won this award while he’s eating a pretzel.”

Whatever you might think about Mr. Moore’s brand of rabble-rousing guerrilla filmmaking, there was something about this “man of the people” winning the Palme that was strangely out of sync with the essence of the festival.

Cannes, in the final analysis, is all about exclusion.

It’s not just all the sun-scarred gigolos with their bimbo-esque blondes. During the festival, the main hotels — the Majestic, the Carlton, the Martinez — are accessible only with VIP and press passes. The other people crowded around, casually yearning for a glimpse of stardom, are excluded from the $18 gin and tonics at the Majestic hotel bar.

It is in bars like this where much of the festival’s business is done. In the bar of the Majestic, as if choreographed by Robert Altman, people in turbans and saris and gray-haired, crew-cut Germans with lots of fashionable optical wear bought and sold movies amid the multilingual buzz of cell phones.

Last Friday night, this reporter made his way to the HBO Martinez beach cocktail in honor of “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” a biopic about the late actor, his multiple marriages and difficult life, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and Charlize Theron. In Cannes, though, the film is secondary to its celebration.

Specifically, it’s about the after-after-party, where the stars go once they have made their brief appearance at the after-party. The “Sellers” after-after-party took place in the intimate bar of the Hotel du Cap, a half-hour drive from Cannes along the coast. Amid polished marble, illuminated palm trees and neatly graveled walkways, you could sip a $25 rum and coke (no credit cards accepted) while chatting to Hollywood movie types, English TV actresses with sparkling eyes, and hangers-on, those of Los Angeles’ independently wealthy set who gleefully admit to doing nothing.

It was the sort of environment where stars let their guard down. Emily Watson, an unconventional beauty looking uncomfortable in her decolletage, sipped mineral water on the terrace with a few old friends. Mr. Rush (“Shine,” “Quills”) went with casual exuberance from cluster to cluster, unbothered by pesky fans and normal people. Even Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, the producer of Michael Moore’ s film, made a brief appearance, methodically asking who everyone was — perhaps there was a deal in there somewhere.

Cannes in many ways is a nirvana of limousine liberalism where nods to cosmopolitanism, experimentalism and political correctness are nodded often: Thai director Sud Pralad won the Jury Prize for a film in which half of it takes place in the dark. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the 21-year-old Belgian, Jonas Geirnaert, who won the short-film Jury Prize with his college senior project, “Flatlife.” In his acceptance speech he boldly pronounced that the festival should be less commercial — fewer tickets for VIPS and more for his friends — and appealed to the audience to vote against Bush.

However, the Belgian’s speech and Mr. Moore’s victory were pretty much the extent of the politics at this year’s festival. The truth about Cannes is that even with the smattering of anti-Iraq declarations, the troubles in the world felt far away.

The movie crowd, as much as its stars lend their names to fashionable political causes, lives in the alternate universe of upscale make-believe. You can sympathize with the masses and still steer clear of them. You can embrace gritty realism as an actor as long as you don’t have to face it in real life, as long as you can seclude yourself in the Hotel du Cap.

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