The sixtieth annual Cannes Film Festival begins today. Here’s my memoir of the fifty-seventh Festival…
Years ago Carla had been a make-up artist in Hollywood; her husband Mateo is a cinematographer. They met on a shoot – apparently the lead actor showed up for work in a drugged stupor half the time, giving the crew a lot of time to get to know each other. A production assistant of that long-forgotten movie had single-handedly withstood the onslaught of utter chaos, an accomplishment that led to his subsequent rise in the industry. Now, fifteen years later, he was a major producer with a film in competition at Cannes. He was gay, and he needed an escort for the red-carpet walk and the fabulous party his studio would be throwing. Carla was an hour’s flight away, in Florence.
I sometimes wonder why I’ve never found myself attracted to Carla. She looks great, and she flirts flagrantly. According to her testimony, the most unlikely of mutual friends has grabbed her ass repeatedly, and I don’t doubt it. It is, I have frequently had occasion to observe, a rather bony ass – I presume she has an eating disorder. Not that I have anything against skinny women. I could imagine her biting my dick off then laughing maniacally as she spit it out onto the floor, one scrawny bangled forearm smearing the blood down her chin. Even in our historically arms-length friendship Carla had established an intermittent yet persistent pattern of volatility. She would react with verbal violence to perceived slights, and she seemed to enjoy provoking people, even strangers. Even me. Toward Mateo she was nearly always caustic; when they were together he usually looked like he had a headache just above his right eye. I assumed that he probably had a fling now and then, and that the extensive travel schedule wasn’t least among the many things that Mateo liked about his work. Still, I couldn’t see him leaving her. I felt fairly sure that if they ever separated it would be Carla’s doing.
The last time we’d seen Carla she’d seemed exultant. Careening through the narrow roads in her little European car, jabbering animatedly into the cell phone she held in one hand while with the other making obscene gestures out the window at the drivers she cut off, Carla seemed hell-bent on out-Italianing the Italians. Some mutual friends had stopped by to see us after a few days in Florence, and they seemed vaguely worried about Carla. Did it seem to us that maybe Carla took a little too much wine with lunch and dinner? I hadn’t noticed anything. Besides, it’s Europe, for God’s sake – you eat, you talk, you drink. I had sent her a hunk of my first novel. “It’s brilliant, of course,” she had told me over the phone. I wondered if she still held this exalted opinion of my stuff once I’d told her what the friend-of-a-friend New York agent said about the first five chapters. In my courteous reply to that pompous bastard I’d observed that, since I rarely read books written in the last forty years, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “experimental fiction,” but I figured that unmarketability must be the definitive symptom of the disease.
Anne and I got together for lunch with Carla and her producer friend down on the zone pietonne. The day felt familiar: meandering crowds of people watching each other, an enjoyable and leisurely meal of uninspired cooking, a drunken young Frenchman yelling at us in passable English – “I am a Jewish man, I love America, I have four beers.” The producer seemed amiable if not particularly communicative – “oh wow” was his usual observation about anything anyone had to say. By contrast Carla’s effusiveness seemed positively manic. She wasn’t quite satisfied with the ensemble she’d brought for the Saturday night following the producer’s premiere, when they would dine with exclusive company aboard the world’s largest yacht. We paid a visit to our friend at the Chanel shop, but I don’t think Carla could focus her attention long enough to look around, let alone buy. She and the vendeuse were obviously sizing each other up. Both are beautiful women, but in very different ways: one muted and subtle and languid, a figure in a Monet; the other sharply edged in black hair, porcelain skin, blood-red lips.
The plan was this: Saturday afternoon, before the screening, Anne, Kenzie and I would show up at the door of the exclusive beachfront hotel on Cap d’Antibes where Carla was staying — the very hotel where, not at all coincidentally, the Fitzgeralds and their entourage created the Riviera, or at least the version of the Riviera that captivated the imaginations of two or three generations of Americans. Of course we weren’t on The List, so Carla would have to meet us at the front gate. Then we would have lunch and hang around the hotel together, gawking at the stars and listening to Carla gossip about the first two days of the festival.
We would have proven a grave disappointment to Fitzgerald fans. We had no wardrobe. We had no car – our flat was right downtown so we didn’t often need one; and besides, parking cost a fortune in that densely-packed strip of urban space squeezed between the Mediterranean and the Alps. Also we had no money. Or, more accurately, every day we had less of it, with fewer prospects for replenishing the dwindling supply. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but at the time we regarded our small European life as a kind of deliverance. We would not be arriving in style at the grand Riviera hotel, springing from the limousine, lavishly tipping the bellmen who opened all the doors just for us. No, it would be the train for us that Saturday. Now I love trains; to me Europe means trains. Humphrey Bogart smokes in the cold rain at a Paris station, waiting for a woman – this, not Scott and Zelda at the beach tossing back too many highballs, was the Europe of my imagination. Only that day I wasn’t heading for Paris or Barcelona, the kind of passage where even people like me, with boring clothes and flat American accents, can regard themselves as sophisticated world travelers. Instead I was riding the local commuter run, busy weekdays shunting people to work or school or the shops in Cannes and Nice and Monaco, but a pretty desolate operation on Saturday at noon. With its grimy windows and gouged seats and spray-tagged walls, the cars looked like they’d be right at home on a southside branch of the Chicago El.
Carla was going to get her hair and nails done that Saturday morning, then she would call so we could arrange our rendezvous. We waited until eleven: no call. I figured we’d better get started anyway, so we’d be in position when the call finally came. Just before we set off to catch the train we decided to call Carla on her cell: no answer. “It’ll be fun,” I reassured myself.
The ten-minute walk to the Gare Central took us down the Rue d’Italie through the African district, its vegetable markets and patisseries and Hallal bucheries lively and boisterous, the unidentifiable aromas from the Moroccan and Reunion Island cafes infusing me with their exotic funk. We climbed the steps to the Avenue Thiers, lined with sex shops and pharmacies and Chinese fast-food joints, then crossed over to the station. At the automated ticket-dispensing machine I dialed in my destination – Juan les Pins, the stop nearest Cap d’Antibes and the last one before Cannes – and payed the fare with my French credit card. The train pulled in on time and nearly empty – there didn’t seem to be many cinéastes and glitterati riding the rails to the Festival. We chose seats facing each other, from which we caught intermittent glimpses of the sea along the short run through Cagnes-sur-Mer and Antibes to Juan Les Pins.
We called Carla from the train: no answer. We called again when we got off: no answer. Maybe our phone isn’t working? We found a pay phone just outside the station: no answer. Maybe Carla’s phone isn’t working? A shopkeeper looked up the hotel’s number for us: no answer in her room, monsieur; would you care to leave a message at the desk? Sure. We began the slow and pointless stroll through Juan Les Pins, heading generally toward the esplanade. From there we could take either a bus or a cab out to the Cap and the splendid hotel. If worse came to worst we could walk, which I figured was two kilometers from the station, tops. It was May, the weather was perfect – what better way to spend a late Saturday morning than promenading along one of the most beautiful stretches of seacoast in the world?
As it turned out, of course, we never did make it out onto the Cap. We looked in at a couple of boutiques. Anne placed another phone call from the lobby of a small hotel while Kenzie and I watched an elegant Italian family and a Texan wearing skin-tight jeans and a white cowboy hat check in. Eventually we had lunch at an outdoor place where the Cap begins jutting into the sea. I thought about walking the rest of the way, just showing up at the hotel and taking our chances, but decided against it. Instead we headed the other direction, along a walkway embedded with handprints left behind by musicians who over the years had performed at the summer jazz festival in Juan. Louis Armstrong. Django Reinhart. Miles Davis. We made three more phone calls.
Sitting on the pier we could see the cluster of yachts moored just off the end of the Cap, each one serviced by launches shuttling guests between ship and shore. Below us fish glinted sunlit reflections in the clear turquoise phosphorescence. An old man with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip held a fishing line over the side; he shared a tall can of beer with a couple of his copains. I may have dozed off. Out of nowhere a pontoon boat pulled up to the end of the pier, disgorging its cargo of American and European tourists. After a time the old pêcheur reeled one in. “Felicitations,” I called out to him, and he nodded a dignified acknowledgment. He unhooked the fish, laid it carefully in the small styrofoam cooler, and walked slowly away.
At about four thirty Carla called. Up late, took a nap, didn’t hear the phone, never got any messages. You know my cell is Italian, so you have to dial the country code first. No? Oh well, we’re leaving for the opening in forty minutes. Too bad it didn’t work out. Oops, Cameron’s at the door, she wants to borrow a dress. Ciao.
When we got home I picked up a pizza from the guy who bakes them in a van permanently parked on the street about a block from our place. There’s a hole punched in the roof of the van with a chimney sticking out of it, for venting the oven.
We never heard what Cannes was like. No, I take that back. We heard about Mick Jagger ordering a full English breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We heard about some blasted studio executive singing like a crazy man out on the yacht. Mateo told Carla she ought to write about the festival on her blog. She said it was a good idea, but she never did it. As a matter of fact, I don’t think she ever made another posting to that blog after Cannes.