Every year the Cannes Film Festival pulls into its orbit a rangy group of Chicago journalists, critics, student filmmakers and programmers. The festival was different this year, though. Conspicuously and sadly, it lacked the benevolent presence of its most ardent American chronicler, the late Roger Ebert.
A week into the Cannes blur, at the American Pavilion's Roger Ebert Conference Center, with Roger's wife, Chaz, in attendance, Annette Insdorf of Columbia University moderated a panel featuring me, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and Eric Kohn of Indiewire. The anecdotes flowed, and the panel was followed by a thumbs-up photo-op and salute to Roger on the beach. And after an awful lot of awful, rainy weather, the skies cooperated with the sunniest, nicest hour of weather of the entire 12 days.
Like many Cannes regulars, Gene Siskel Film Center programming director Barbara Scharres wore two hats while covering the festival. As programmer, she scouted titles for the School of the Art Institute-sponsored organization's European Union festival, as well as its Asian and Iranian showcases and potential weeklong runs. "We're balancing festival prospects with full-run possibilities," she said.
As is the case every year, she's up against the Chicago International Film Festival, whose representatives — Michael Kutza, founder and artistic director, and Chicago festival programmer Mimi Plauche — were likewise back at Cannes, seeing dozens of films for their own purposes. Now, Scharres says, the distribution deals settle into place (or not; plenty of Cannes titles never find a U.S. distributor) and the jockeying commences.
And the other hat? For years Scharres covered the festival for the Sun-Times as one of Ebert's contributors. This year she cranked out daily reports for rogerebert.com, overseen by Chaz Ebert. "There's really no conflict," Scharres says, noting that writing for the website ensures her a higher grade of access badge, which makes it easier to see the movies she wants to see in Cannes.
"That's why every programmer out there tries to get a writing gig," she says.
To wit: Milos Stehlik of Facets Cinematheque. He covered Cannes once again for WBEZ-FM. He has attended since 1988. This year, he said, "there were enough good films to justify the trip. Only a couple of travesties." (He cited "Only God Forgives," Nicolas Winding Refn's sadistic doodle, as the worst of the worst.) Also, he says, "in my opinion it was a totally stupid and insane Palme d'Or win for 'Blue Is the Warmest Color.' It's the archetypal pretentious French film, with pseudo-philosophical dialogue married to exploitative sexual content representing a male point of view. It's a male fantasy of two lesbians. Although I can understand why some lesbians will like it; they're desperate for mainstream images of themselves."
The debate magnet of the festival, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" earned admiring, even rhapsodic reviews from straight male critics, straight female critics, gay male critics and some gay female critics, in addition to resistance among all those ranks. But this is why Cannes is such a vital experience. The arguments begin on the French Riviera and lead to lobby debates or post-screening dinner conversations around the world months later, when the movies premiering in Cannes find their way to theaters and VOD distribution deals.
"Cannes is the research," as Scharres puts it. "Everything else comes later."
Late one night in Cannes on the Croisette, the main drag along the beach, I ran into Music Box Films managing director Ed Arentz. The Chicago-based company had recently cut a distribution deal for one of this year's competition titles, a historical drama starring Mads Mikkelsen titled "Michael Kohlhaas." This was a "pre-buy," in distribution parlance, a film Music Box picked up prior to the festival based on the screenplay, not on the finished product.
We talked about the German art-house hit "Oh Boy" that the Music Box recently acquired, and the German miniseries "Generation War" that Arentz, Bill Schopf and their Music Box colleagues hope to place at Toronto, or Telluride, and other festivals later in the year. Heading off to dinner, Arentz mentioned he did make time to see at least one film strictly for fun. "I thoroughly enjoyed the new Coen brothers movie," he said.
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