Mme Thompson: elle a du style

WITNESS; Headlines, not awards, sell films at Cannes, writes David Lister
When I last went to the Cannes Film Festival, I saw comedy, drama and acting of the highest calibre. It was all so enthralling I never actually made it to a single movie. But then what film could capture the excesses of Hollywood at play on the terrace cafes along La Croisette or the spectacle of the British contingent using all their inventiveness to get noticed?

I remember a svelte American producer defying fashion for an opening at the Grand Theatre Lumiere by wearing leggings. Two British female film executives behind her were barred entry. "But we're wearing the same as her," they protested. "Oui," replied the doorman, "mais elle a du style."

But we are learning. I was in the British pavilion at Cannes when an American producer making a film of Othello said he wanted to shoot it in Dumfries and Galloway, "because I've heard it's just like Cyprus". The British Film Commission executive barely blinked, saying to me coyly afterwards: "I suppose they grow potatoes in Cyprus too. We can stretch our imagination and do some lateral thinking."

Emma Thompson's performance this week was a fine example of lateral thinking to get attention. Promoting a little known film, Carrington, and up against Pam from Baywatch for the day's publicity, she nevertheless made the front pages by comparing herself with the Victorian artist Dora Carrington, who fell in love with a homosexual man. Emma had had a varied sex life since she was 15, she revealed. The comparison was about as relevant as an actor playing Hamlet saying that he had actually always got on rather well with his real mother. But no matter. Em got noticed, even grabbing a second day's publicity by apologising the next day. Elle a du style.

The National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell eschewed le style and lateral thinking and chose to dress without any style and speak without thinking. It was a brilliant coup. Crowds gawped as he strode under La Croisette in an ill-fitting pinstripe suit, and his description of the French actress and former sex bomb Jeanne Moreau as "the distinguished Frenchman" put a nail in the coffin of European union which could yet endear him to the Tory rebels.

I salute Emma Thompson and Stephen Dorrell. Being British at Cannes is not easy. Cannes is a market where producers, lawyers and corporate executives buy, sell, network and wheeler-deal round the clock, with mealtime providing no respite. Indeed, a few years back, two lines scribbled on the back of a restaurant napkin between a lawyer and his business client became the contract for Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is a movie festival going on somewhere among all the networking and buying and selling, but it is increasingly a sideshow and the jury's verdicts have little effect on what we choose to see over the following year. The studio publicity machines, reviews and word of mouth are all far more effective than a palme d'or. Cannes is big business and little is allowed to get in the way of that. In 1968, at the height of the student revolt in Paris, a group of angry film-makers rushed the stage at Cannes, grabbed the curtain and shouted: "In no way are we going to allow the festival to continue while students are endangering their lives on the barricades in Paris." Among the young Turks were Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut.

Such a demonstration today - say, about violence in Algeria - would be unthinkable.

Ironically, the soon-to-be-published Chronicle Of The Cinema recalls that it was originally proposed to have the festival in Algiers rather than Cannes. If it were taking place there today, Emma Thompson's childhood reminiscences would seem even more irrelevant.

But as long as the festival remains in this overpriced, decadent and desperate business convention masquerading as a film festival, good luck to Emma and all her compatriots for selling our movies as best they can.

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