Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #5 - Altman Excelsior, Antoine Doinel Agonistes

by Harlan Jacobson

May 19, 1996

I think about some of the odd images and moments I experienced here, on the eve of the close of the 49th Cannes:

There was the large cruise ship moored in the harbor with the word 'PRIVATE' painted in red on the side, which I only learned was a floating sex show and bordello with a complete menu of services after it hoisted anchor and sailed off to Spain;

There was Robert Altman, knighted Sunday night, with the legion of Honor by festival director Gilles Jacob, who recalled that the first time Altman was here with "That Cold Day in the Park" in 1969, one of the reels caught fire. The next year he won the Palme d'Or for MASH.

Altman - this nervous giant of American cinema - dressed as ever in white, took it all in, the speech bordering on a eulogy, and replied simply in 58 words, including these: "France has been my mentor. France has been my haven. France has been my friend...Vive Las France." If only his film, "Kansas City", which failed to receive an award in competition here, had been so clean, so moving;

There was the Chinese camera crew that surrounded film critic Roger Ebert, telling him he had just been seen by 600 million people. Roger beamed. The crew then said they had just finished with Bernardo Bertolucci, whose "Stealing Beauty" showed here in competition, and Bertolucci had been seen by 1.2 Billion people. "Guess that's the falloff rate from director to critic in China," Roger sighed...

I ended my filmgoing at the 49th with a movie called "Irma Vep" by young French director Olivier Assayas, whose talented, previous movie, "Cold Water," was something of an art house miss in 1994. The films tells the story of a middle aged director played by Jean Pierre Leaud, trying to crank it up one more time to make a film, this time a remake of Louis Feuillades' silent serial, "Les Vampires", which featured the title character, Irma Vep (an anagram of Vampire), made famous by silent star, Musidora. It was hard to watch Leaud in the role of the despairing director, his face so tired and lined, and whose nervous breakdown ends this witty testimonial to filmmaking. For one thing, it added a rather bittersweet postscript to Francois Truffaut's own testimonial to filmmaking, "Day for Night", of 20 years ago.

Here was Leaud, and look at him now, completely haunted. My mind flooded with images of him, the wounded Antoine Doinel, who was12 when he made Truffaut's "400 Blows", and whom we watched literally grow up as Truffaut's fictionalized alter ego. Leaud, who shone so beautifully in "Jules et Jim", Leaud, who marched back and forth between "The Mother and the Whore", Jean Eustache's 1974 three hour film, which seemed so profound when I was in my 20s about men and women ,and now seems so quaint, like watching home movies of kittens. Seeing Leaud now in his 50s was unnerving; when Truffaut died, he seemed to take Leaud with him.

Seeing Leaud hyper-linked me to another film in the competition here, Arnaud Deplechin's "How I Got Into An Argument My Sex Life", I was struck by it's kinship to "The Mother and the Whore". It's this generation's instruction manual on how men and women's expectations collide, and it reminded me that cinema is a cross of many things. Cinema is a window that lets us spy on the private moments of others. It is a time capsule full of the bric-a-brac of who we were, a message we send forward about who we were. And, of course, it is a mirror in which we take the measure of ourselves.

There is no film I love so much in Cannes as the 10 second trailer which starts each film. It is how I know I am in this place which loves cinema so well. We ascend a set of stairs - individual detached planes, really - which starts rising beneath the surface of the azure sea, then crosses the water line and proceeds up through blue sky and ends with the logo of Cannes, a golden Palme, shining in the black heavens, full of stars. Each step of cinema is built on the last one.

It is a conceit, perhaps, that cinema like souls head up into the heavens. But in Cannes, I take comfort in the thought.

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