Cannes is not just about the screening of films. Like many festivals, it also provides opportunities for aspiring film-makers to network and attend panel discussions by those they aspire to emulate, and it was at one of those events that my day began. The UK Film Centre, one of a couple of dozen national beach-side marquees beside the Palais, was hosting a talk by three producers involved in The Lobster, two of them Irish and one British – although their accents betrayed different backgrounds altogether. It was, nevertheless, interesting to hear how they pulled together financing from five countries and cast from even more to get the latest vision from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos to the screen. The director chose to cast Olivia Colman long before he decided which role to put her in; Ben Whishaw was so keen to work with him, he didn’t mind what role he was given; costs were kept low by having the cast and crew stay in the hotel that was used as one of the main locations, that was close to the woods that were used for another – the hotel even remained open to other guests during the shoot. And something that will be particularly surprising to many film-makers, they didn’t use any make-up or additional lighting.
From the UK Film Centre, it was off to catch another of the Palme d’Or nominated films, Italy’s Mia Madre, one of many by former winners or nominees; simply translated as My Mother, it is Nanni Moretti’s seventh film in competition at Cannes over the years. In many senses, it looks and feels like awards bait – the main character is a film director (check) making a drama about a protest by workers at their factory when it’s taken over by an American firm (check), whose mother is dying (check) and whose relationship with her lead actor has run its course (check). This film about a director whose mother is dying, made by a director whose mother had recently died, even includes a rather peculiar turn from John Turturro as the elegantly-named American star Barry Huggins. Moretti himself turns up as the protagonist’s brother. The performances are genuine, but the film’s structure and themes seem tired and uninspiring. It’s peppered with flashbacks and dream-sequences that don’t particularly add to the narrative, there’s little connection between the film-within-a-film and the director’s own troubles, Turturro’s character serves as little more than comic relief, yet even his traits are incoherent. Naming the main character Margherita gives a sense of how this kind of film is a staple of Italian cinema, without offering anything surprising or original.
Then it was back to the UK Film Centre for another panel discussion, entitled “The Perfect Match.” This featured a handful of producers who had put together complex film financing arrangements that took advantage of international financial and other incentives, many of which revolve around benefits that come from EU membership. One of the group, Andrea Cornwell, explained how she chose to shoot the recent wartime drama Suite Francaise in southern Belgium, as there were better incentives offered than in France, where it was set. An American finance expert on the panel remarked that certainty was one of the main drawers for producer to a territory, citing Canada’s recent decision to reduce its package with immediate effect, leaving many producers – mid production – with a black hole in their budgets. Bearing his uncertainty question in mind, I asked whether they were worried about the prospect of the UK voting to leave the EU. Amid a flurry of questions about how to get foreign money for your film, the panel seemed somewhat surprised – at both the question and the prospect that there is now a referendum on the horizon. “That’s a difficult way to end the session!” laughed the moderator.
With time to kill before the next screening, I took some time to explore the other main element of the Cannes experience – the film market. The Palais and adjoined Riviera exhibition centre are packed with hundreds of booths, run by distributors and sales agents from around the world, promoting films, many of which are unlikely to be heard of again once the posters on their walls are pulled down at the end of the market. With such titles as The Last Spanish Kabbalist and The Monk Who F*cked a Limousine (and on the poster itself, the asterisk was actually the letter U), it’s simply mind-boggling how many films get made every year and how small a proportion ever make it to any screen, let alone a big one. One of the most surprising things to note, for anyone who’s frequented the market over the years, particularly earlier on in their careers, is that the Short Film Corner – where young directors used to fight for wall-space to display posters and post-cards, often pulling down those of their rivals – is now bereft of any promotional material. The area looks spookily clean and professional but sadly lacking in personality.
The market is also perfect for anyone who likes sweets, with bowls placed strategically to draw people in, as if a boiled sweet is going to be a deal-clincher that gets a distributor to pick up a film. Other promotional giveaways included a pair of sunglasses – something which I’d foolishly neglected to bring. Bright blue and branded with Digital Film Cloud Network, they’ll do their intended job while keeping the sun out of my eyes – or should that be they’ll do their intended job while promoting the Digital Film Cloud Network.
The next screening of the day was from the only British director to be programmed in the official selection, although out of competition; Asif Kapadia’s examination of the rise and tragic fall of the jazz and pop singer Amy Winehouse. Entitled simply Amy, the film included interviews with many of those closest to her – including friends; a father who, according to the film, put what he could get out of the situation over concerns for her welfare; a manager whose priority was getting her on-stage, regardless of her wellbeing; the ex who introduced her to the drugs that would signal the start of her downward spiral, a spiral that was accelerated by the emotional journey her took her on. There is no original footage, with all of the interviews being played over archive video. Although hers is unquestionably a desperately sad story, for many British audiences, there will be few revelations, and for those less familiar with her life, there are moments where it jumps around in time or seems to have vital events missing. But what makes this emotional tale hit home all the more is the inclusion of privately recorded material, such as personal phone-calls and a video of her singing “Happy Birthday” to her best friend on her fourteenth birthday. With the potential of this otherwise ordinary sweet little north London Jewish girl visible at such a young age, it effectively highlights how tragic it is when a fragile talent simply can’t cope with the pressures and temptations of stardom.
After a brief stop at a South African drinks reception, it was off to join the queue to see another of the eagerly awaited festival films, Louder than Bombs. Unusually, this was a press screening in the Debussy Theatre, surpassed in size only by the Grand Theatre Lumiere next door, where the red-carpet competition premieres take place. With more than a thousand seats in the auditorium, it was as surprising as it was disappointing that after waiting for half an hour in the Riviera sunshine, the screening was full, with only those members of the press lucky enough to warrant a pink badge gaining access. The press are colour-coded here, with my yellow badge at the bottom of the pile. Get all your friends to like and share this article and maybe next year, they’ll promote me to blue!
Checking the reams of festival and market leaflets that litter the Croisette, I launched the back-up plan. A well received film in the Directors’ Fortnight selection that launched Pride last year, The Brand New Testament, was starting just fifteen minutes later, a ten minute walk away. Rushing up the Croisette, I didn’t have time to stop to photograph a dressed-down Matthias Schoenaerts, who was walking back down towards the Palais. The cinema at the Marriot hotel is less than half the size of the Debussy, with only about five hundred seats, but the lower profile and status of Directors’ Fortnight and its distance from the Palais at least gave me hope. With the previous film’s Q&A having overrun, the queues, fanning out in all directions had not yet even begun to filter into the cinema by the time the screening was due to start. So that meant another longer than necessary wait to find that yet another screening had no room, bringing Sunday’s Cannes to an earlier conclusion than planned.