For the first time ever, the Cannes Film Festival decided to shake things up and throw a huge “Welcome Party” for all the festival attendees on Wednesday night following the gala opening night premiere of Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, the multi-Oscar winning director’s third time in that slot and first since Midnight In Paris wowed the Croisette in 2011. Allen wasn’t at this particular party but it seemed like much of Cannes was, and I thought it was a particularly good idea on the part of the Fest to do it this year considering all the heightened concern over security and fear of possible terrorist attacks in an understandably very nervous France. The loose party vibe helped create a genial atmosphere as this fest really gets rolling and no one seemed too concerned about ISIS rolling up on the beach this particular night.
At the Palais where Allen and his stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively and Corey Stoll strode perhaps the world’s most famous red carpet, there was a sense of fun and anticipation to see what Woody was serving up this time. Inside there were a couple of tasteless jokes by the forgettable comic hosting the proceedings, but the film was well-received by the first-nighters, even if it got a relatively small three minute or so standing ovation from the crowd. These almost forced ovations are getting to be old hat at Cannes and I just think the savvy crowd has had it with extending them for PR purposes. The biggest one I can remember was clocked at 25 minutes for Michael Moore and his Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004. Allen’s Cafe Society is a love letter to 30’s New York and particularly Hollywood where he shot for the first time since his Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1977, Annie Hall. Eisenberg is the perfect stand-in for Allen, who said earlier in the day that the role of a young man smitten with his Uncle/Boss Steve Carell’s mistress (although he doesn’t know that fact) is something he would have played himself back in the day. But he said Eisenberg is a real actor while he is just a comic and thus gave the role much more depth than he ever could have. Allen does narrate the movie (“I wrote it and I was cheap to get,” he said). At the press conference following this morning’s first screening he also explained why his films will never, ever play in competition at Cannes. “I don’t believe in it. It’s all subjective. Is a Rembrandt better than an El Greco? It is against any common sense,” he said, perhaps also clearing up why he has never set foot at the Oscars in all the times he has been nominated and even won.
At 80, Allen is still going strong turning out one movie a year and even a new TV series for Amazon. The secret he says is eating well and exercising. “It’s pure luck. My dad lived to be 100 and my mom nearly that. If there is anything in heredity I hit the jackpot.”
Initial reviews were decidedly mixed for the film which has the ambitious structure of a novel but, working with famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for the first time, everyone agreed the period setting looked stunning. The movie has a lot of classic Allen lines but the best is some sage life advice: “My mother always told me to treat every day like it will be your last and then one day you’ll be right”.
I can promise you I appreciated Cafe Society even more once I endured the first competition entry, Romania’s Sieranevada from past Un Certain Regard winner Cristi Puiu (the terrific The Death Of Mr. Lazerescu) who has now moved up to the main competition with this 3(!)-hour talk fest that is basically taking place on one set. And message to Cannes organizers, don’t slot the festivals longest movie, complete with French and English subtitles, as the first to be seen. A lot of us used the time to nod off and try to get over the jet lag. No rest for the bleary at this place. The jury, headed by director George Miller, starts their duties on Thursday when they will be seeing this film and the other 20 some competition entries. Meeting the press today it was actually another 80-year-old who stole the show when actor and first-time juror Donald Sutherland turned every question asked of him into something of a hilarious unrelated story meant to express his opinion, which at this point is that he has no opinion. But one query from a fellow Canadian journalist wanting to know his feeling about Canada’s movie industry really gave him ammunition. “I gave up talking about Canadian cinema a long time ago, ” he cracked. “There’s a very famous story of a British soldier and a French soldier and a Canadian soldier who were captured and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. They were each given an opportunity to have a last wish. The Brit asked for a cup of tea, the Canadian asked for 15 minutes to talk about Canadian identity, and the Frenchman asked to be shot before the Canadian.” It ended that press conference on a note of raucous laughter from the world’s entertainment press who probably didn’t want to hear about Canadian cinema either.
Finally using Cannes as a worldwide publicity opportunity for yet another Dreamworks Animation film, Jeffrey Katzenberg (as Deadline reported earlier) came to town to help launch DWA and 20th Century Fox’s fall entry, Trolls with a presentation on stage at the Debussy Theatre that featured footage and a live duet between co-stars Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick singing “True Colors”. But the really true colors were in the Troll wigs a group of about ten models wore while parading later in a Troll fashion show on the Carlton Hotel pier. It was a classic Cannes PR stunt that Katzenberg has traded in since bringing his first DWA ‘toon to town when Shrek broke all the rules and landed a competition slot in 2001. When I caught up with him he was feeling very nostalgic. Since he sold the company to Comcast he will no longer be running DWA so this was his Cannes swan song. “I first came to Cannes in 1976, and with a movie, Days Of Heaven in 1978. It has been a very long relationship. Dreamworks has had 16 movies here,” he told me, while adding that festival director Thierry Fremaux says he will have to find another way to get Katzenberg to come back. Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos, who was standing with us, suggested that maybe he could be on the jury, that is until they both decided that would be way too much work. At the CinemaCon Trolls presentation Katzenberg was still wearing a cast on his hand in an arm sling, but for Cannes it finally came off. He showed off his scar. By the way, Gianopulos told me Warren Beatty’s long-awaited Howard Hughes movie is worth the wait. Fox and New Regency are releasing it this fall. “It’s really good. It’s definitely an adult picture, but Warren and the young cast are great in it, ” he said.
And so the 69th edition of the greatest film festival is off and running.