Off The Beat: It’s in the Cannes!

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The rain, the heat, the crowds, the croissants, the movies. This is the Cannes Film Festival, or where I was the past few weeks.

Cannes is a little city on the French Riviera, and how did I get there? I was sent by the San Francisco Film Society, along with the French Consulate and the French American Cultural Society to serve as a juror for Critics’ Week. This is a smaller subset of the Cannes program, which screened films by emerging first or second-time directors.

At the head of my jury was Celine Sciamma, the French director of the films “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy.” Alongside three other young international critics, we chose one film to receive the Visionary Award for a promising new talent. But when I wasn’t on jury duty, I saw as many films as I could from the main competition.

Much of being at Cannes means waiting with uncertainty in line for two hours. I foolishly did not get press accreditation, and therefore had no clout by which to leverage a good seat. I was, no exaggeration, the last person admitted to Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”

The best film I saw at the festival was “Holy Motors,” a surrealist film by Leos Carax, who came out of the woodwork after 13 years of silence. It stars Denis Lavant as a kind of man-for-hire who assumes different identities throughout the film, from a dirty leprechaun with a raging hard-on to a man married to a family of monkeys. I will have to see it again if I am ever to understand it, but “Motors” was the most imaginative, idea-filled movie at the fest.

Another one of the films closest to my heart was “Amour,” which nabbed the coveted Palme d’Or prize on the festival’s last day. It’s essentially two hours of a woman dying, but it’s exhilarating, redemptive and far more emotional than any of the twisted Austrian provocateur’s other films (like “The Piano Teacher”). Who knew Mr. Haneke could feel anything?

If it ever snags distribution, Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux” was sparkling highlight of the festival. It’s a dreary, dreamy, non-narrative film that features a man ripping his own head off, and a CGI-rendered, anatomically-correct Satan. At the press screening, the film was met with boos and hollers — something pretty common at Cannes.

Au contraire, one of the worst films at the festival was Walter Salles’ “On the Road.” This is the sweatiest movie ever. All participating parties need a good hose-down, especially Kristen Stewart. The movie is just way too episodic (they get high, they fuck, high, fuck, rinse, repeat). But even when films like “On the Road” and Jacques Audiard’s contrived melodrama “Rust and Bone” failed, I still felt a certain thrill seeing these at the festival. The thing about Cannes is the pure viewing experience. Here and only here, you can go into a film blind, having seen no trailers and read no reviews that might sway you.

I had to write a lot in Cannes. I recommend steroids for the faint of heart. Hampered with articles to write and deadlines to miss, I didn’t do as much star-gazing as I might’ve hoped. But I did have a cigarette about five feet away from Ezra Miller (Kevin of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) who was also having one. That’s about the best celebrity encounter story I can offer.

Aside from surreptitiously taking pictures of Ezra Miller and Jason Schwartzman, being at Cannes also means looking for internet like water in a desert. It means jerry-rigging a Wi-Fi connection under a table at McDonald’s because at Cannes, internet is like an Antonioni film: nobody can connect. This is what made prolific writing so difficult for me, yet it also offered me a wonderful kind of freedom, where the only things on my mind were the films, and where to get a good martini.

The tendency to want to be a star-fucking groupie at Cannes is an easy one, because there are so many celebrities pulling up in their limos on the Croisette. Any given day I watched as the tourist rabble huddled around a hotel and waited, waited, waited for the mere chance that Zac Efron might arrive.

Desperate tourists aside, Cannes is a place where people really respect movies, and everybody wants to talk about them. I have never found an environment like this anywhere else, except maybe in my own head. When the festival starts, energy abounds. But as the days go by, that energy is less and less felt. People are tired, and getting listless. At the behest of jet-lag, it’s easy to nod off during a screening or two. It’s especially bad if you’re doing this while seated in front of David Cronenberg, watching his son Brandon’s movie “Antiviral.”

On my last day at Cannes, before boarding a train to Paris, I watched as a sad little man vacuumed the red carpet in the daylight. I don’t know why this particular moment struck me, but it was the only thing I took a picture of while I was at Cannes. It was like seeing the insides of the festival lay bare, the reality beneath all the glimmering flash bulbs and fanfare.

I loved every soggy, sunburned day at Cannes. But after a steady diet of croissants, I will never eat another one again.