Steve Taylor is the director and co-writer of Blue Like Jazz, which premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival and was released theatrically by Roadside Attractions. He is also one-fourth of the rock band Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil, whose debut album Goliath was released in November. Steve lives in Nashville, and is the current Filmmaker-In-Residence at Lipscomb University’s College of Entertainment and the Arts. You can follow him on Twitter here. (Photo by Frank Ockenfels III)
I just returned from my first time at the World’s Most Intimidating Film Festival, aka Cannes, with the same bewildered unease I felt leaving high school: I’m still not sure what happened. I should have worn different clothes. And it all would have been better if I were more popular.
Just like in high school, I’d done my homework. I assumed that my 15 or so trips working and vacationing in the French motherland — everything from spending New Year’s Eve 1999 in Paris to directing a music video with a closing shot of François Truffaut’s grave — would have adequately educated me for anything I’d encounter on the Riviera. I’d studied the French masters: Godard, Bresson, Renoir, Clouzot, Demy, Tati, and the aforementioned Truffaut — I’ll even sit through the occasional Luc Besson oddity just to prove I’m not a snob. The key to Cannes, I presumed, lay in understanding the French.
Twelve days later, I confess: I do not understand the French.
First, there are the films. I thought I’d won the festival lottery when it was announced the jury would be headed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, who I’m convinced have the consistently strongest body of work in cinematic history. They were joined in the judges box by the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, actress-director Sophie Marceau, and enough other international notables to presumably assure us we’d be watching the type of groundbreaking and original work this jury is known for.
Or we could just watch a bunch of movies about suicide. From Sea of Trees to Chronic to Valley of Love, Cannes 2015 turned out to be The Off Year. And if snail-paced elegies to shame and loss aren’t your thing, the alternatives included incest (Marguerite & Julien), child murder (Sicario, Macbeth, Son of Saul), and family dissolution (just about all of them). There were some excellent movies among them — Sicario and The Lobster were personal favorites, along with the out-of-competition Mad Max: Fury Road, which was interrupted multiple times by spontaneous applause and cheers. There were also movies where, 20 minutes in, I was afraid I’d fall asleep. And 30 minutes in, I was afraid I wouldn’t.
And God help you if you’re at Cannes and your preferred genre is comedy. Like Sean Penn and Russia, comedy is not what they do. This was reinforced at the screening I attended of The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ satire on couples that would make the great Charlie Kaufman proud, an absurdist comedy that’s both wildly inventive and laugh-out-loud funny. Or at least it was to me. Maybe it was the morning screening, but the harder I laughed, the more I felt like a howling Robert De Niro creeping out the movie theater in that scene from Cape Fear. Those of us who attempt comedy in the U.S. are constantly reminded by foreign sales agents that humor doesn’t translate overseas, which was further reinforced by a conversation I had with a young Indian filmmaker while waiting in line for a premiere. We were comparing notes on what we’d seen, and everything was going great until I made the mistake of attempting a joke.
Him: Have you seen the Amy Winehouse documentary?
Me: I tried to go to a screening. They said, “No, no, no.”
Him (after a confused pause): So they wouldn’t let you in? Did you show them your pass?
Want to kill a comedy’s chances? Premiere it at Cannes.
Then there’s the wardrobe. Unlike Sundance or Toronto, Cannes is not a place for slumming, presumably because a hockey jersey with flip-flops soils the reputation of their red carpet. If you’re planning on attending an evening premiere of a main competition film, you will be dressed in formalwear. Men don tuxedos with a bowtie or they don’t get in, and the only exception seemed to be the occasional rule-flaunting international star (I’m talking to you, Vincent Cassel) — otherwise, if you showed up with a $3,000 Armani tuxedo and a straight tie, a Cannes usher would politely send you across the street to buy new neckwear at the Gucci boutique. Women are likewise obliged: this year, there was much press about the controversial requirement that women attend premieres in high heels, after stories circulated of women in flats being refused admission to screenings. I witnessed a female standing behind me in the premiere queue being denied entry for not wearing an evening gown, and no amount of argument from her tuxedoed escort could dissuade the usher — she was barred for her business attire. Yes, the French have out-styled the rest of the world since the glory days of Versailles, but do they have to rub our noses in it?
Finally, there’s the social pecking order, which tops anything in Mean Girls. When you see, say, an actor at the Oscars telecast who’s neither nominated nor presenting, don’t you feel a little sorry for them? That’s how I felt being at Cannes without a film to screen. Because the filmmakers, much to the organizers’ credit, are the true stars of Cannes, each one featured in a life-sized poster in the lobby of the Lumière. I was there to watch, learn and take a few meetings at the concurrent Marché du Film — nothing to be embarrassed about, right? But every time I saw someone I knew, I’d be like the guy with the head cold warning you not to shake hands — my opening line was a preemptive “I’m not here with a movie.” I didn’t want pity from my fellow filmmakers. I wanted their slot.
And therein lies the gathering’s inscrutable appeal. Just like high school, we’re willing to risk loneliness, occasional tedium and some outright humiliation because it’s The Cannes Film Festival. I’ve never met anybody who was sorry they got their high school diploma. And I’ve never met a filmmaker who wouldn’t rather be at Cannes.
Hope to see you there next year. I’ll save you a seat in the cafeteria.
All photos by Steve Taylor.