Seniors Day in Cannes: Look, everyone! It’s Jerry Lewis

Brian D. Johnson’s latest dispatch from the Croisette

(from left) 'Max Rose' director Daniel Noah and cast members Jerry Lewis and Kerry Bishé / photo by Brian D. Johnson

Thursday was Seniors Day in Cannes. It began bright-and-early a screening of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a bittersweet road movie starring Bruce Dern as deluded old coot chasing a black-and-white rainbow to a pot of gold. And it climaxed with a royal visit from one of France’s most venerated Americans, Jerry Lewis, who’s playing a widowed grandpa in Max Rose who begins to wonder if his marriage had been a sham.

We’re witnessing a bizarre cultural divide here. On the one hand, a stubborn pack of old American stars are storming the festival: Behind the Candelabra‘s Michael Douglas, 68; Dern and All is Lost‘s Robert Redford, both 76; and Lewis, 87—who had a festival press conference in hysterics with a deadpan wit that hasn’t lost any of its edge of the years.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in 'La Vie d'Adèle'

But while the elders are giving their careers another kick at Cannes, the movie that’s burning up the Croisette—and generating the most buzz as a Palme D’Or contender—is French director Abdellatif Kechiche‘s  Blue is the Warmest Colour ( La vie d’Adèle: Chapter 1 and 2), a tour de force by two young French actresses who generate amazing chemistry. A landmark lesbian love story, with a raw emotional and erotic realism, it’s exactly the kind of movie we dream of seeing in Cannes—something that redefines the limits of cinema, and is quite unlike anything we’ve seen before. Starring, Adèle Exarchopoulos, 20, and Léa Seydoux 26, it’s an intimate three-hour epic about a high school girl who falls madly in love with an older art college student/painter. Between the hot sex, the cigarettes, and discussions of  Sartre, there could not be a more archetypical French film, yet it busts through cliché into uncharted realms of intensity.

This is the second French movie we’ve seen in competition about sexual voracious teenage girl who undergoes a traumatic trial of the flesh—after François Ozon’s Jeune et jolie, a kind of adolescent Belle de Jour. But La Vie d’Adèle blows Ozon’s film out of the water. The narrative of the competition is like that; a movie can literally erase what came before.

But enough about the French and their women. As an aging male film critic, I’m automatically suspect for loving an opus of girl-on-girl passion; and I’m keen to hear what women think of it. Meanwhile, a word about a couple of ornery American elders who could never be accused of being too sexy, Bruce Dern and Jerry Lewis.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is the story of Woody (Dern), an aging alcoholic who sets out on foot to Nebraska, determined to claim a $1 million sweepstakes marketing prize that he’s received in the mail. Unable to convince him it’s a scam, his son (Wille Forte) agrees to chauffeur his dad on this quixotic mission, which gets detoured into a Gothic family reunion in Woody’s home town, where the locals start to vye for a piece of his “winnings.” Shot in black-white, Nebraska is a tender, deadpan portrait of small-town Middle America, with warring doses of human decency and petty prejudice. Like some of Payne’s previous film’s—About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents—it’s an immaculately scripted, off-kilter odyssey that backs into some eccentric corners of America, burbling along on a score that matches its slyly understated tone.

Alexander Payne (left) and Bruce Dern / photo by BDJ

At a press conference, when asked why he shot it in black-and-white, Payne said, “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” adding that it’s “a visual stiyle as austere as the lives of the people in the film.” He also called it a contemporary “Depression-era” movie.

Dern had magnanimous praise for his director. “I’ve worked for six geniuses,” he said, citing Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull, Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne. Hal Ashby did not make the cut. Payne reciprocated with flattery. “I like actors who can be ornery and heartbreaking at the same time,” he said. Payne then roped the actor’s daughter, Laura Dern, who was in the room, into the equation—he directed her in Election. “Both Derns will do anything for you.” Recalling a scene in a car, he said he asked Bruce to “please put yourself into a a pathetic, crumped heap, and he did it.”

Dern, who has been known to slap a bit too much mustard on a performance, said he did two things in Nebraska that he’s never done before: “There’s not one word of dialogue that wasn’t in the film, and there’s no ‘Dernsies.’ ” (The meaning of a ‘Dernsie’ wasn’t quite clear to me, but I assume it has something to do with putting in stuff that’s not in the script.)

After the earnest self-congratulation of the Nebraska presser, Jerry Lewis arrived as tonic. I’ve never been much of a fan, but I was impressed. The guy is innately funny. I won’t try to reproduce the gags. It was all in the timing: you had to be there. But for an 87-year-old, he has a remarkably agile mind, like your old man who whips you at ping pong.

When asked to explain the “fondness” of the French for his work, Lewis immediately seized on the genteel understatement of the question: “A fondness?? They kept me alive for 50 years!”  And when asked to please speak about his “artistic and human relationship” with Dean Martin, without missing a beat, Lewis said: “He died, you know.” The room erupted, and then he added, “When I arrived and he wasn’t here, I knew something was wrong.”

But Lewis got painfully serious for a moment on the subject of female comics. He said he could accept them with a certain context. But, unrepentant in his controversial views, said he still can’t stand to watch them as performers alone on a stage. “I can’t see women doing that. It bothers me. I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator.”

“Who was your favourite female comedian,” a journalist asked.

“Cary Grant . . . and Burt Reynolds.”

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