Postcards from Cannes, Part 1: The Great Gatsby, Heli

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
The excess and emptiness of the Festival de Cannes; plus, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Heli.

After having spent the last eight months sifting around Paris, I felt ready to deal with the vagaries of Cannes, that most illustrious of French film institutions. I was wrong. I was staying in Grasse, the town famous for its flower fields that are used in perfume and for cheap hay fever medication, 20 kilometres from the golden sands of the Côte D’Azur. Cannes prices year-round are expensive, but the accommodation rates during the festival are exorbitant, especially for small niche websites from New Zealand. Why bother arguing about discounts with hotel staff with small fry like us, when a Hollywood exec isn’t going to think twice about it.

I arrived at the Grasse bus stop at 6.30am, bright and early. France has an enviable public transport system—one of the best in the world—but I was hit by that peculiar French model of strikes occurring whenever something important is happening. It’s an annual Grasse event. None of the regular buses were operating. I was going to have to change somewhere and somehow. All of this was explained to me by a man swilling his morning espresso—I couldn’t tell if the smell of whiskey on him was from last night or from the coffee. Eventually I gave up and tried the slightly more expensive train link on the other side of town. To save time I took the bus. After a fairly heated argument with the bus driver about neither of us having coins to pay for the fare—he had coins but didn’t want to give them to me in exchange for my note—it was only when I explicitly said “I’m a tourist” and implicitly said “I’m going to pretend not to understand anything else you say so you might as well make it easy for both of us” that I was on my way. Some poor guy doing his job, caught up by entitled foreign critics and a desire to preserve his change. Jacques Brel on the sound system singing about seedy Amsterdam and its transient folk seemed portentous.

All of this nickel and diming seemed to jar even more in the context of Cannes. Whereas Paris is, in theory, where a Rastignac could come and climb the ladder anonymously, at Cannes, there’s no point unless you’ve already made it. People unconnected to the festival walk around trying to grab attention with breast implants and Birkin bags; Louis Vuitton suits and Oxbridge types reminisce about how many people they went home with the night before. Champagne is unloaded by the tray, tuxedos are bought rather than hired, and multi-Michelin starred chefs are recruited to cook sandwiches. Well-heeled tourists walk into the stores and leave without saying “bonjour” and “au’voir” while the shopkeepers sigh at their bad manners. Total nobodies hold up signs begging for tickets to the gala films, perhaps more for the photo opportunity than the hope of getting in, although the way that some of them are dressed, you think they would have a genuine chance. Others, perhaps more realistic, set up seats at 8am to catch a glimpse of the red carpet parade 12 hours later. They might glimpse half a head above the phalanx of photographers. Holding fort to this spectacle is the golden beach that’s the backdrop to the Palais des Festivals and attached casino, although the sand now is less Robert Mitchum and more industry tents.

Cannes’ reputation is such that it is regarded as the biggest of the big when it comes to film festivals. In many respects, it barely seems French. Paris is a study in elegance, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and exists today as if it was unchanged from a hundred years ago. It is also the country’s dominant and dominating cultural site—so much so that heated arguments continue to reign in the provinces about this skewed domination. Paris’ love of culture is real and intense—few places in the world are as enthusiastic and as structurally defined by culture as Paris. Paris, however, cedes its grandeur in film to Cannes.

Cannes on the other hand is gaudy. Even the pretty orange rooftops of the nearby Riviera towns have been wiped in favour of ’60s “beachside” blocks. The festival too, unlike its European counterparts, pays no attention to concepts of “the people”—Berlin and Rotterdam are relentlessly open to the public; Venice is grudgingly and expensively open. Cannes is an industry-only event. It has no intention of being perceived as that damning and snobby French word “populaire”. But the festival seems to work. It has courted the celebrities and ensuing media/paparazzi for headlines. It sets the template for the other wannabe festivals to match. And whereas a celebrity in Paris can eat in peace without a local even wanting to acknowledge them, here in Cannes, it was almost as if Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments were being tested on iPhones.

Despite this, Cannes has managed to hold onto its reputation for a very important reason. The films. In the last 15 years, the likes of Haneke, Kiarostami, Imamura, the Romanian New Wave, and Weerasethakul have been awarded the top prize, while even noble failures such as The Tree of Life and Fahrenheit 9/11 are far beyond the multiplexes. The films still seem to matter—behind the scenes, at least—but especially when compared to the relentlessly mediocre and onanistic Hollywood spectacles surrounding their awards seasons.

It seemed fitting that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was the opening night film. The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald tale of money, class, love, and emptiness in 1920s New York was a potent marker for such a festival. The occasion, however, proved to be a touch anticlimactic—not only has the film already opened in the U.S, it has been critically panned too. Part of the problem with adapting a book like Gatsby is that the vast majority of writers will have read it, and if you’re American, you’ve probably also studied it. Everyone has an opinion on it, and a view of how it is meant to work.

For me, it completely worked as both a film and a spectacle. Admittedly, this took me by surprise; low expectations, engendered by the early negative reception, perhaps a contributing factor. And I must admit that I hated Moulin Rouge so much, I lasted no more than 20 minutes. Fitzgerald’s literary worlds are fake. Most of his writing is a mix of Gossip Girl-style privileged folk whining and some of the best imagery in 20th Century literature. Gatsby, though, was a truly brilliant book about a fake world. Luhrmann understands this, and has made the film world superficial. The costumes, the colours, the music, the performances are perfectly over the top.

Fitzgerald’s terse prose lends itself to staid adaptations. Luhrmann, however, has decided to wallow in the emptiness of Gatsby’s world, before using the superficiality to destroy the spectacle. And he almost satirises his own filmmaking M.O. in the process. He conjures exquisite visual and aural moments throughout, but is happy to acknowledge their transience and, in the end, uselessness. New York is fantastic—more a product of an auteur’s mind (parts were reportedly filmed in Australia) than something that actually existed—and yet the lights and the constant growth are an intoxicating sight.

Wisely, Luhrmann has kept the focus on Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), maintaining the book’s “inside/outside” narration. He has also ensured that Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) remains, for the most part, an enigmatic figure. Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a character who’s almost impossible to play well in a way that everybody will love, remains on the periphery. And crucially, the sharp edge of the book is retained: it seems Fitzgerald never really believed that Gatsby and Daisy were right for each other; on the contrary, that people desire symbols that prove they have “made it”. Daisy was proof to Gatsby that he was a success, and perhaps no more than that. Careless people, after all, do careless things, and the book was as damning an account of money, wealth, progress, and power as you’d hope to find.

The film’s flaws are pronounced. Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety in relation to emotion irritates; he overdoes the green light on the pier and the glasses billboard, for instance, while also eschewing other key images in the book. The framing story of Carraway recounting the events to a psychologist has some merit, but it ultimately deliveres too much talk about emotions, and not enough trust in the audience to figure things out. But the pageantry of the 1920s and Luhrmann’s love of anachronistic references work out perfectly—and in these austere European times, the links to pre-GFC greed, and the flimsiness on which all that wealth was built, are all too obvious. It’s a great spectacle and resonant depiction of an equally empty world.

While waiting in line for the next film in the evening, someone was taking a pig for a walk alongside the red carpet. Having geared myself up to read symbols for the next week and a half, I thought that this was a protest aimed at the festival. In hindsight, it was probably just someone taking a pig for a walk. Meanwhile, a reviewer behind me was using her umbrella to direct the rain onto the backs of people in front of her in the queue. She took advantage of people squirming to move in front of them. Once inside, she tried to horde three seats for her “friends”. When her friends didn’t arrive, she promptly fell asleep.

The first competition film that I saw was Mexican contender Heli. A young girl falls in love with a trainee policeman in small town Mexico. He tries to peddle drugs he stole. She and the rest of her family are caught in a spiral of violence when gangsters come calling. While this sounds melodramatic—and for the most part it is—director Amat Escalante films it in a restrained style reminiscent of Bruno Dumont. Men crawling in the dust, people reduced to nothing more than animals, implacable scenery. Escalante’s visual intelligence and the restrained performances improve an otherwise clichéd and trite story. Violence begets more violence, and so on. It features a rather brutal torture scene, which will no doubt become its biggest talking point. Moreover, the film’s take on a Mexico suffering under the folly of the War on Drugs provides an interesting subtext: police corruption, useless judiciary, and unthinking corporations, suggest that there is little will to change the conversation. Drugs busts are photo ops, dangerous ones at that; victims are tolerated as long as they don’t mess up at the factory; kidnap victims are pursued in exchange for sexual favours. It was nothing if not bleak.

On the bus home (which has replaced the train for the duration of the festival) I sat in front of two Englishmen, seemingly with pubic hair stuck onto their chins, who had been partying. First they talked about the difference between French Guinness and English Guinness. They then decided that they were sick of travelling on the bus. Tomorrow they would drive home drunk. “In second gear, we’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?” “You could lose your licence.” “It’s only France.” Daisy Buchanan, eat your heart out.

I had ended the night at a superb Italian pizzeria. I found myself seated next to a homeless person gifted a free coffee from the restaurant. He was scratching a bingo ticket. He didn’t win. Ordinarily, this would be a fairly obvious piece of pathos. But for my first day at Cannes, it felt oddly apt.

The 66th Festival de Cannes is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s last assignment as The Lumière Reader’s Europe correspondent. He has also covered international film festivals in Venice, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Previously based in Paris, he returns to New Zealand in the Winter.