Changes in moviedom

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Dream and the Deal

It took skill to fly to Cannes from London this year. Weaving nimbly between airline strikes and ash clouds, we British critics touched down in Heaven-on-the-Med, where nothing seems to have changed in 20 years. This is still the perfect spot on Earth to hold a film festival. Green palms wave on the Croisette. A Golden Palm beckons in the Palais du Cinema. Palmistry in general, the art of predicting the recipient of the frond embrace, is for 12 days a favourite sport. Even the main names among the competing directors at this 63rd festival – Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Bertrand Tavernier, Nikita Mikhalkov, Takeshi Kitano – have a frozen-in-time feel.

Despite melting markets, a stricken home-entertainment industry and bizarre changes in moviedom’s glamour ideal, Cannes remains the place where the Dream thrives – and so does the Deal. “You can accomplish in a week what typically takes six or nine months,” a Hollywood mover/shaker was quoted as saying. And this year you can do it in a Wonderland worthy of Lewis Carroll. A jury presided over by Tim Burton; an opening movie that was more a megadollar fancy-dress party (Robin Hood); and at night the fantastical match between a starry sky and the massed stardom below (Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, this year’s festival ribbon-cutter Kristin Scott Thomas).

Even in the most reassuring Cannes, though, there are changes – or intimations of the larger, weirder changes in moviedom at large.

Silicone, Vale

This year, it’s a headline moment for a headline topic. At least for those who value the popular screen’s rich, kitsch heritage. Are Hollywood and the film business saying farewell to fake breasts?

For decades the Cannes littoral in May has been scanned for eyefuls of naked bosom. But the tradition is dying. And “boobs on the beach” – unless nature-endowed – may be ended for good by the new dispensation in Hollywood, firing the first, slightly astonishing shots in a war on silicone.

A casting notice for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean 4, shooting now, said actresses “must have real breasts. Do not submit if you have implants”. Auditionees will reportedly be subjected to a “jiggling test”, as brutally decisive, no doubt, as the ducking stool in witch-hunting days.

Good news; yet sad. The worst-kept, best-loved secret in American popular screen culture has long been its obsession with the female chest. Directors such as Russ Meyer (Supervixens) and stars such as Jayne Mansfield made the mania famous. Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) spun a fantasy about a giant runaway breast, which weirdly came out in the same year as Philip Roth’s novel The Breast, a mammarian take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. (Jewish conspiracy?) Eventually cosmetic science had to come to nature’s aid. American boobs could never be large enough in reality. So hello, silicone. Now comes the backlash. Expect flat chests by 2015.

It is becoming the same with Botox. Directors Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann are among those who have said: “Stop with the face drugs.” “They can’t move their faces any more,” despairs a casting director from Britain, the country that dared to deny Mickey Rourke a leading screen role because plastic surgery had removed (in the moviemakers’ view) his plasticity. As for collagen lips, also decried by Scorsese and Co., they too are getting belated castigation. Horror has often been my personal reaction to seeing a favourite actress suddenly present, in a new film appearance, what appear to be a pair of overfed mating slugs.

But supersized or surgery-boosted breasts? A few nostalgic dotards, for a while yet, in their ageing and unreconstructed minds, will be taking a trip down Mammary Lane. Or scanning the Croisette beaches for the sights of yore. But the sight of Hollywood getting real – isn’t that even more exciting? Even more invigorating? A Viagra of the soul?

Iran Man

Fifteen years ago at Cannes a young Iranian won the Camera d’Or for best first feature. His film The White Balloon, a parable of childhood and innocence, began a new national cinema, feted by the world in ensuing years. Jafar Panahi, who also won the Venice Golden Lion with The Circle (2002), a fierce drama about women’s rights (or lack of) in Iran, is now in jail. Arrested on March 1, reportedly for his outspoken sympathy with Hossein Mousavi’s opposition party, his imprisonment in Tehran’s Evin jail has provoked a letter petitioning his release from a dozen top US movie folk, including De Niro, Spielberg, Scorsese and the Coens.

Six years ago, when he visited Europe with his prizewinning film Crimson Gold, Panahi told me of the constant struggle for government acceptance in Iran and for the freedom to show and promote his films in the west. The White Balloon was considered an Oscar certainty, if submitted, said Panahi, but “the government said it would present no film to the Oscars that year because America had a budget for anti-Iranian propaganda”. The Circle, also a potential contender, was banned from domestic showings in Iran, thereby rendering it Oscar-ineligible.

Like Abbas Kiarostami, the screenwriter of The White Balloon, who angered the authorities by taking his film A Taste of Cherries to Cannes in 1997 – where it won the Golden Palm – Panahi often defied the government. “If they don’t authorise me to take my film out I still take it out, especially if it’s to Cannes” (where Crimson Gold premiered). But filmmaking has been a fight, even when foreign prizes are won. “The government newspapers say directors like us have sold out and we’re agents of the west, rewarded and promoted by the west.”

Back in 2002 there were free-speaking newspapers. “Three days before The Circle was shown in Venice the government let my film go because of pressure by the public and the press.” Today voices of difference in Tehran are silenced. Let us hope a few voices are raised in Cannes this week and next, where Kiarostami’s own new film Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, will be in competition.

As the Iranian entry? No, as a French one. Foreign funding and a foreign location (Tuscany). That is how freedom is borrowed, bought or leased for Iranian film artists today.

Nigel Andrews’ next report from Cannes will be in the FT arts page on Tuesday

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