How opinion forms in Cannes

Went to the Blindness party, which got going just before midnight at the Carlton Beach after the Cannes opening gala. Walked through a corridor of white fog to get to a soirée where Veuve Clicquot flowed like Kool-Aid and waiters swooped about with fishy things on toothpicks. The white fog was the only thematic concession to the movie. Some had joked that we would be eating in the dark, like in one of those light-starved restaurants, or groping each other on a dance floor slick with the sort of filthy slime that covered the floors of the film’s quarantine internment camp for the blind. But there wasn’t a dance floor. And some of the black-tie crowd seemed, well, blindsided by the bleakness of the film. Despite an uplifting ending that’s arrives like an oxygen tent of fuzzy sentiment, this movie is a grueling ride, and not typical of opening night galas in Cannes. Opinions about the film were mixed, although those at the premiere reported the audience was attentive and the ovation respectful. I’d seen the film with the press, whose opinions were also mixed, verging on negative.

The cast of the film, including Julianne Moore, Danny Glover, Alice Braga and actor/screenwriter Don McKellar, mingled in a VIP area at the very end of the pier, along with a voluminous Canadian contingent—including Toronto film festival programmers, Telefilm honcho Wayne Clarkson, Film Farm’s dynamic producing duo Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss (Away from Her, Adoration), the Canadian ambassador to France, and the the the embassy’s young film and literature officer, who talked my ear off about Blindness being a Greek tragedy and said he liked to write poetry while drunk.

Danny Glover is very tall and imposing. Julianne Moore is delicate and sparkling, like human jewelry. And Don McKellar has a black furry beard, which makes him look thin. I asked if it was for a role. He said, “Yes, I’m playing an author.”

I stayed at the party too late, but succeeded in not getting blind drunk, and got up for this morning’s 8:30 a.m. competition press screening. Whatever happens at night, if you miss the 8:30 a.m. screening, you feel like a bum. On the way to the morning screening, you pick up the trade papers, glossy festival editions that are published daily during the festival. While waiting for the movie to start, you flip through them, pretending for a few days in your life like you’re some kind of film biz professional. But this morning, I was genuinely curious to see how Blindness had fared with the industry’s instant critics. (Film festivals generate a discourse that reverses the usual protocol: the rest of the year I try to avoid other critics’ reviews; at festivals I devour them.)

The U.S. reviewers were pretty harsh. With the sort of merciless distillation that trade critics like to show off in their lead paragraphs, Variety called Blindness “an intermittently harrowing but diluted take on Jose Saramango’s shattering novel.” The Hollywood Reporter declared that “a tone of deadly seriousness swamps the grim action.” Screen International heaped praise on Julianne Moore—no one can really fault the performance of this early Oscar candidate—but says director Fernando Meirelles “never illuminates convincingly the wrenching fear of his source material.” Yikes. It’s interesting how quickly these trade reviews coalesce. Less than 24 hours after the end credits rolled at the press screening, the Variety review predicted that “despite marquee names, mixed reviews might yield fewer eyes than expected.” Which implies the writer had polled his colleagues—all part of assessing the barometric pressure of the critical consensus that he’s forming.

I was talking to one of America’s most prominent newspaper critics over coffee during the Blindness press screening (We’d both previewed the film in our home towns), and he expressed a qualified admiration for the film, as if he was still making up his mind. What will the Cannes pantheon of U.S. critics think? “I guess we will know within about five minutes—right after they all come rushing out of the screening,” he said. Yes, reactions here are bonded with fast-drying cement, in chattering huddles, without the luxury of letting a film’s impression slowly emerge in the private darkroom of each critic’s imagination.

Personally, I was enthralled by Blindness, despite some clear flaws that I felt willing to forgive in the heat of the moment. The film haunted me for days. And it’s still developing in my mind’s eye. Blindness will almost certainly resurface at the Toronto International Film Festival, and won’t open commercially until the fall. So its fate is not sealed, but on opening night at the casino called Cannes, it has been dealt a tough hand.

For Brian D. Johnson’s article on Blindness in this week’s magazine, go to Blinded by the light on the Riviera

For more of my videos go to http://www.youtube.com/bdjfilms. All 2008 Cannes footage is shot on a Sony HDR-SR12 camcorder, on loan courtesy of Sony Canada.

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