Cannes you feel the love tonight?

Image of Nigel Andrews

Tin Cannes Allen

It’s here again. The jazzy pandemonium on the Med. The biggest film festival in the world. Glam, glitz, gaga-ness. The black-and-white minstrelsy of male tenue de soirée ascending the red carpet each night with the multicoloured freak-frocks. Popping flashbulbs. Crowds. Gawpers. And – in France he is still legal tender as a celebrity and an artist – Woody Allen as opening night guest and director of the first movie.

In all senses Cannes goes on and on. This is the 64th festival, and I have been to 38. It’s a frightening thought. I was here at the party where Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman first met over champagne and sizzling reindeer meat. I was here when an unknown young bodybuilder called A Schwarzenegger was just one of the year’s topless lovelies on the Croisette beach.

Cannes can confer fame and genius, or re-confer it, on everyone. So are we surprised that Woody’s Midnight in Paris is his best comedy in years? It’s an utterly charming frivol about a time-traveller (Owen Wilson) in the French capital, where he meets not only Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (France’s first lady in a fly fictive cameo) but also Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso and, back-pedalling further, Toulouse-Lautrec. The only surprise in this plot is that for Cannes-goers – read on – it feels absolutely and completely normal.

Reel time

This is, after all, how the festival operates. Zones of history and reality meet, mate, mesh. It isn’t just the collisions of past, present and future on the screen: one moment a historical drama, now sci-fi, next the hard clonk of the contemporary.

I wandered the streets and kept meeting epoch-juggling make-believe. A man in white-face, wig and dandyish 18th-century dress was buying something in Monoprix. A Charlie Chaplin lookalike was mooching round the street market. They were two Croisette buskers (known to us all over the years) having a shopping break. Then I bumped into a film star I thought was dead. Then I bumped into a film critic who, I was amazed to learn, was alive.

Even more marvellous at Cannes are the defiances of history or seeming actuality that take place purposefully and polemically. Last year Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker condemned to prison for free speech, was an absent presence. Picked for jury duty, he couldn’t come. A symbolic empty chair was left for him. This year Panahi, still detained and banned from filmmaking, has turned back the clock of official history or simply broken it. He has sent a movie to Cannes. Clandestinely shot, it’s an account of a day in Panahi’s life as he awaits his court verdict.

The film, with a companion movie by a companion banned director from Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof, will unspool later in the festival. Hooray for both men. Hooray for Cannes. And ya-boo to all those, wherever in the world, who try to arrest the ineluctable workings and whirrings of truth.

‘Are you listenin’ to me?’

Who judges the judges? We do. On day one at Cannes the festival jurors sit under hot lights at their press conference being grilled by critics. President Robert De Niro, asked about judging criteria, set the pace for vagueness. “I don’t know what we’re looking for, I’m gonna sit there figuring it out.” Several times he lost count of multiple-part contributions from the floor: “What was the question again?” But a bold wag, referencing famous old dialogue from the star’s movies, stood up to say: “Mr De Niro, I’ve two questions. Are you talkin’ to me? And did you f*** my wife?” A bemused De Niro looked at the moderator (do I have to answer this?), then gamely replied to the second query: “I don’t think so ... ”

For a few minutes things started heading back to platitude – Uma Thurman looked as if she was withering with ennui, while Jude Law was turning to wax – when juror Linn Ullmann, novelist daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, saved the day. Dazzlingly, she said something. Asked a forgettable question, she philosophised an almost unforgettable answer.

I can’t reproduce it all but basically and bulletpoint-ishly: “What is the point of creating art? ... Many forms of art are political while saying ‘we’re not political’ ... They are all about forms of human solidarity ... Solidarity of thought and passion and feeling ... When I was a child, I didn’t go skiing like other Norwegian children. I watched two films every day during the summer in my father’s cinema. And he would turn round to me at the end each year and say: ‘That’s your education!’”

Brava! Everyone wanted to go up and hug her. Of course, that’s it. Apolitical politics. Human solidarity. Education. That’s cinema. That’s why we’re here. We shuffled out happy, even as De Niro wound up with a last mumbling answer to his last questioner: “I don’t know ... I don’t know ... we’ll have to see ... ” Yes, Bob; call us when you’re ready.

Atlas slugged

Brief news from Cannes’s sister city, Hollywood.

The press went for it savagely. Left, then right, then – when the ref wasn’t looking – a collective critical head butt. But Atlas Shrugged: Part I has been for me the deranged and glittering oddity of the US cine-season. A self-financed labour of love from producer John Aglialoro ($18m from his own pocket), it’s the first instalment of his proposed adaptation of Ayn Rand’s famous – infamous? – 1,300-page 1957 novel about the Capitalist Idea.

Rand’s book, a Utopian fable in which a group of gifted businessmen are kidnapped to populate an entrepreneurs’ Atlantis, is even more gaga than her The Fountainhead. But it has obsessed Hollywood over the decades. Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Faye Dunaway were all mooted for previous versions. Rand herself, after flirting with a 1970s TV miniseries version, started writing a script but died before it was completed. The new film buzzed the names Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron before settling for a non-star cast.

Bad move? Well, the movie tanked. Hurt by a poor opening weekend, Aglialoro said, “Critics, you win”, and announced he wouldn’t go ahead with Part II and Part III. But more recently – hooray – he changed his mind. I saw Atlas I in a Florida cinema less empty than most, with a respectful audience three-line-whipped (many of them) by the free publicity lavished on the release by the Tea Party and Fox News. Rightwing economics never had a more imperious bard than Rand. She is to Wall Street what Herman Melville was to whales. For that reason alone, let’s hope Aglialoro fulfils his promise of Part II and Part III, due in, respectively, April 2012 and 2013.

Just put some stars in this time, John. We need the glamour.

Cannes Film Festival runs until May 22.

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