Cannes Diary #4: Survival of the Film-iest

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As soon as I opened my eyes, I knew my theme for the day would be: survival. I was in one of those deep sleeps, the kind where you lie so hard on your arm it hurts when you wake up. I don’t know anything about REM cycles, but I must have been in the part of it where your alarm shouldn’t go off. Because even though I’d had enough hours of sleep, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.

I grabbed two coffees on my rush down the Croisette, peering at the beautiful sparkling sea underneath my sunglasses. It really is gorgeous here. The blue water, the white sand, the glamorous people who look like they could either be on their way out or coming back after a night of partying. In my years at Cannes, I’ve only been to a handful of parties. Who has time, I always wonder, when there are so many movies to watch?

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Today, I wanted to see five, back-to-back. First up was one of my most anticipated, ‘Cold War’ by Pawel Pawlikowski. He directed the Oscar winning ‘Ida’ a few years ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was back at the Academy Awards next year. ‘Cold War’ is another gorgeously shot black-and-white film set in Communist-era Poland, but this time, it’s much more personal. Pawlikowski has been searching for a way to tell the story of his parents, with their tumultuous love story that took them to both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s not strictly true to their life, but he does use their first names - Wiktor and Zula. Set over 15 years in Poland, Paris and other parts of Europe during the 50s and early 60s, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a composer who falls madly in love with Zula (Joanna Kulig,) a singer. They are passionate, she is complicated. And it is a survival story, as they try to survive without each other, and with each other, all with the restrictions of life under communism. 

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This is my favorite film of the festival thus far. Every single frame by Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal is exquisite. Carefully composed, in black-and-white, which looks lush and dreamy. Pawlikowski doesn’t hold the hand of the audience throughout the film, allowing you to put together the details yourself of what is happening. And mark my words, Joanna Kulig is going to be a big star. She is captivating to watch, and it’s easy to see why Wiktor would risk it all for her.

Lining up for my next film, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. I hadn’t eaten, and now I was starving. Friends texted me asking to join them for lunch, but I wanted to see ‘Arctic’. My stomach grumbled and I wondered if I would survive this survival thriller. Soon the story made me forget my woes. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a man lost in the Arctic, trying to survive the brutal weather and stalking polar bears. He lives inside his crashed plane, alone for most of the movie. I was reminded of ‘All is Lost’ with Robert Redford, where you’re dropped into the story with no backstory on the character, and very little dialogue throughout, yet you find yourself willing the nameless man to survive, as more and more gets thrown at him. ‘Arctic’ is directed by Joe Penna, a Brazilian filmmaker who also makes YouTube videos. It’s a stressful movie, and well made, anchored with an intensely quiet performance by Mads Mikkelsen.

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As soon as ‘Arctic’ was over, I rushed to soak up some sun and shove a panini into my mouth in the half an hour before I needed to line up for my next movie. Overall, the screenings seem to be quieter this year, perhaps because there are more options to see the big movies, but I still don’t take chances. For each film, I spend approximately 40 minutes waiting in a line. Though I’m lucky to have a pink press badge, which is only a few levels down from the top. For the blues and oranges of the Cannes world, they have to line up for much longer, and I notice them eyeing off the pinks, hoping more don’t come. It’s survival of the film-iest as we battle crowds, sore feet and thirst (there’s a no-water rule) to get a seat inside the theater. And the line for ‘The Image Book’ was especially packed, given that it’s the new film by the legendary Jean-Luc Godard.

Twenty minutes into the film, I wondered if I was going to survive watching it. ‘The Image Book’ is a montage of moving images, narration by Godard, sudden bursts of music and long periods of silence. The images are from a variety of sources - movies and news footage - and are organized into sections, ranging from trains to the Middle East. There are some very violent images of war and terrorism. This is Godard’s look at the current state of the world, him sending a warning that we may not survive it. It’s like visual poetry, and there is much analysis you can do on the images, how they contrast and compliment the narration, and each other. But for me, as a film, it was tough to watch all in one sitting. There were many walkouts, lots of people checking their phones and some very loud snoring, but I was determined to sit until the end. I admire how Godard still has much to say, and use the medium of film a very unique way to tell it. It’s just been announced that ‘The Image Book’ will be touring museums as an art installation, and in my opinion, that is the perfect forum for it.

Unfortunately I only had a few minutes to let the vastness of ‘The Image Book’ soak in, before I needed to line up once more. Next on my list was a film I’ve had on my radar for a a long time: ‘Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache’, directed by Pamela Green. This documentary has been in the works for eight years, with Green being absolutely dedicated to pulling together lost information about the world’s first female filmmaker. If you’ve read my book, ‘Backwards and in Heels’, you’ll have seen the chapter on Alice Guy Blache. She was one of the women that made me want to write the book in the first place, because I couldn’t believe that as a movie lover who voraciously reads film books, I had barely come across her name before. But as I discovered while researching, this was because the details of Blache’s story have been erased, forgotten and re-written in film history. With many men taking credit for her work for years. That’s what drove Pamela Green to want to make this documentary. I actually interviewed Green for my book, when she was deep in production. In her intro to the film she said even after eight years, she’s not finished yet.

Blache’s story is one of survival, throughout an industry which became male dominated. She began playing with the new motion picture cameras in the late 1890s, and made one of the first narrative movies ever created. She went on to run her own studio, pioneer filmmaking techniques - including color tinting and synchronized sound, well before the talkies and technicolors came in. Blache made feminist films, she made comedies, she placed women front and center of Westerns, and unfortunately, only a handful of her films remain. Green’s documentary is chock-full of information - multiple interviews, narration by Jodie Foster, rare interviews with Blache, moments when we follow Green as she tracks down ancestors, and conducts Skype calls with experts. It’s a lot to fit into two hours, and it moves at a rapid pace. The film is fascinating, sad and inspiring. I just hope people new to Alice Guy Blache can keep up with it all. ‘Be Natural’ drives home the importance of preserving film history, and how quickly it can disappear. That’s something I’m obviously very passionate about.

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After ‘Be Natural’, I was starving again. Hungry to the point where I felt as if I may faint. I knew I couldn’t survive the next two hour twelve minute movie without eating something, so I decided to skip it, and walked into the first restaurant I came across. The table next to me soon filled up with a group of French men, who apparently saw me quietly reading my book, and decided that I wanted to be flirted with. They pointed, stared, laughed, asked for my number repeatedly and then knocked a drink all over my bag. My quest for quiet and pizza soon became a test of survival. Still, I wasn’t going to let a spilt drink and obnoxious men kill my vibe, so, once I was gloriously full of pizza, I put some disco on my iPhone, and strutted home to the uplifting sounds of Gloria Gaynor.