Crazy Cannes

Brian D. Johnson on the stars, the hits, the tricksters and the strange bedfellows

Mark Mainz / AP

Surrounded by acres of pines and jasmine, overlooking a rocky headland of the Mediterranean, the Hotel du Cap is one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. But until a few years ago it didn’t take credit cards. The Cap, which served as a Vichy headquarters during the Nazi occupation, came to favour the kind of clients who travel with wads of cash. Half an hour up the coast from Cannes, it’s where stars and moguls like to stay when they come to the festival, far from madding crowd. Journalists used to be banned. Once I showed up there for a rendezvous with actor Donald Sutherland and found him waiting anxiously in the parking lot, petrified that I’d tell the front desk I was there to do an interview.

Well, times have changed. The Cap now takes plastic. And Hollywood studios shuttle journalists in from Cannes for press junkets. Last week, as cold gusts of rain blew in from the Mediterranean, where yachts the size of monster homes bobbed offshore, Michael Douglas held court in a seaside cabana, musing about the second coming of Gordon Gekko—a man with a money clip who would feel right at home at the Cap.
Douglas was in Cannes for the premiere of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which begins with Gekko broke and alone after eight years in prison for insider trading. Looking fresh-faced in a white linen suit, pink shirt and ball cap, Douglas says he was shocked that his Oscar-winning performance in the original Wall Street (1987) made the corrupt Gekko a hero to real-life traders and that “greed is good” became their rallying cry. “I would talk to all these young M.B.A. students who just worshipped Gordon,” said the 65-year-old actor-producer, nursing a coffee laced with Sambuca. “And I felt really weird. I never got it—except when you look at all the trouble today. After 22 years, those M.B.A. guys are probably running the companies now.”

The movie won’t be released until September, but Douglas, already in full promotional mode, gamely parried all manner of questions. A Scandinavian scribe asked how he could drink alcohol after all he’s been through. “Rehab was 25 years ago,” said Douglas, looking at her as if she were from Mars. A German man asked if he’d do another Basic Instinct movie. Another baffled look. “You want to see my saggy ass?”

But the actor warmed to questions about playing Liberace in the upcoming biopic by Steven Soderbergh, with Matt Damon cast as his young lover—Matt Damon who narrates Countdown To Zero, a terrifying and mesmerizing new documentary about the prospect that we’ll all be vaporized by nuclear weapons. Which just happens to provide ammunition for Douglas in his role as the UN’s poster boy for nuclear disarmament. In Cannes, you don’t have to be Oliver Stone to mount a conspiracy theory. This is the Riviera retreat of the Hollywood mafia, so you see connections around every corner.

Money Never Sleeps drew mixed reviews but generated plenty of buzz—reinforced by Charles Ferguson’s excoriating documentary exposé of high finance called Inside Job. And Stone’s morality tale of money gone mad seemed richly emblematic, of both the zeitgeist and the festival itself.

Not unlike Wall Street, Cannes is a crazed casino, a bubble of celebrity and art inflated by wild dreams and over-leveraged ambition. This year, however, its lustre was a bit low-key. The Wall Street sequel and Robin Hood, both unveiled safely out of competition, were the only studio pictures in a program dominated by art-house fare. Some stars, such as Sharon Stone, cancelled, nervous about getting stuck on the wrong side of a volcanic ash cloud.

There’s also a growing sense that while Cannes remains the high altar for auteur cinema, the balance of power has shifted to the Toronto festival, which, in tandem with Venice, launches the fall awards season. Even Cannes director Thierry Frémault lamented the absence of certain films, such as the next as-yet-untitled offering from Terrence Mallick (The Thin Red Line).

Yet Cannes will always be cinema’s magic kingdom. There is no more spectacular, or precarious, place to launch a film than the red stairs of the Palais. This year the festival attracted royalty ranging from Mick Jagger to Queen Noor of Jordan, legends like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and incandescent young writer-director-actors such as 21-year-old Quebec prodigy Xavier Dolan. Cannes serves as a global bazaar of talent, a stock exchange of art and commerce where deals are struck, careers rise and fall, and the strangest bedfellows share the red carpet.

Gian Mattia D'Alberto / LaPresse / ZUMA /KEYSTONE

Take Juliette Binoche, whose photograph adorns the festival’s official poster. In Copie conforme (Certified Copy), Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami takes the star of The English Patient back to Tuscany, casting her opposite William Shimmel—an English opera singer with no acting experience—in an anti-romantic comedy that unfolds as a single marathon conversation about art, love and inauthenticity. How Iranian is that?

Or consider Valerie Plame. She was the CIA spy whose cover was blown after her diplomat husband refused to support the fiction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Plame was in Cannes to promote two movies: Fair Game, in which she’s portrayed by Naomi Watts, and Countdown to Zero, in which she warns of a far more credible threat of mass destruction—terrorists packing plutonium. The documentary comes from the producers of An Inconvenient Truth, but it makes global warming look like a walk in the park.

Even the Wall Street sequel produced an odd match-up. Shia LaBeouf is cast as an ambitious young trader opposite Carey Mulligan, who plays his eco-correct girlfriend and Gekko’s estranged daughter. Talk about two careers on opposite trajectories. Despite her Oscar nomination for An Education, Mulligan, 24, “didn’t grow up wanting to be a Hollywood actress. I grew up wanting to be in a Broadway play and have light bulbs around my mirror and a fire escape outside my window.” She got all that in 2008, starring in The Seagull. And she was wary of Wall Street: “I don’t really like parts that are just accessories to the plot. That’s what I was nervous about, and I’m still nervous. I still can’t figure out what I feel about the film.”

LaBeouf, on the other hand, is the blockbuster wonder boy from the Transformers franchise. So he regards Money Never Sleeps as an entrée to high art. “I felt outclassed as an actor,” he says, brandishing a Coke at the Hotel du Cap. “The first meeting I had with Oliver, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Don’t worry, Tom Cruise wasn’t an actor before he met me either.’ ’’ Describing the director as a mix of Orson Welles and the Easter Bunny, LaBeouf says Stone both terrorized and berated him. “I’ve never been so scared into submission. He frightened me to the depths of my being.”

The actor fought back with intensive research. As the kid from Transformers, he could open doors that were closed to Stone, the scary leftist, making fast friends at Goldman Sachs and Citibank. His homework paid off: LaBeouf became an astute trader, staking US$20,000 of his own money and turning it into US$600,000. He says co-star Josh Brolin, who plays a financier more ruthless than Gekko, went further, gambling millions.

In the Cannes casino, movie stars serve as official currency on the red carpet. But as the Olympics of world cinema, Cannes treats its auteurs as the real stars. Some of the stronger films in the competition—Another Year, a gentle masterpiece on the quiet desperation of loveless lives from Mike Leigh, and The Housemaid, a stunning sexual gothic drama from Korea—feature actors who wouldn’t register with Entertainment Tonight. And it’s the lure of the unknown that keeps bringing cinephiles back, pilgrims on a quest for the film that will change the face of cinema.

No living auteur is more legendary than Jean-Luc Godard. This year the trickster of the New Wave, now 79, presented a bold new feature called Film socialisme, a brilliantly incoherent essay that cuts between a cruise ship and a gas station. It shows Godard to be the original mash-up artist. His most diabolical conceit: English subtitles that reduce the French dialogue to mere fragments. Most exciting, however, was the prospect of a Godard press conference, the Cannes equivalent of an audience with Bob Dylan. We showed up only to learn the oracle had cancelled—true to the message that filled the final frame of his film: NO COMMENT.

The previous day, Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan had been giving interviews on the beach, flush with the success of his second feature, Les amoureux imaginaires (Heartbeats), which received a rhapsodic standing ovation. This tale of a love triangle is a retro ode to the old New Wave, plundering its fashions the way contemporary pop mines ’60s rock. So I had to ask: if Truffaut and Godard were the Beatles and the Stones of La nouvelle vague, which does he prefer? Long pause. Dolan refused to commit . . . until the moment the tape recorder was switched off: “Godard!”

In the Cannes casino, Jean-Luc may have left the table, but a young Québécois who is living the dream has just begun to pick up the game.