The work of Henry Jaglom is an acquired taste that for many of us remains unacquired. While his new film, Festival in Cannes, is not a huge departure from the usual, it may be his most accessible work for nonfans since 1991's Eating. Not surprisingly the movie is set at the Cannes Film Festival. While the year is not specified, movie posters in the background suggest it was shot in spring 1999. Cannes may be the world's most prestigious film festival, but it is also a business event, filled with hustlers trying to sell films or to raise the money to make them.
Jaglom's main interest lies with these hustlers, who represent a wide range, from bullshitting wannabes to bullshitting has-beens to bullshitting Hollywood power brokers. The festival itself -- that is, the aesthetic part of it, with its awards -- is almost entirely in the background. In fact we get the distinct impression that all the major characters are way too busy pursuing their personal-glory agendas to actually, you know, go see a movie or two. Many of them claim to have seen (and loved) the work of whomever they're talking to at the moment, but there's no reason to believe them.
In the manner of Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter and The Player, the point of view in Festival in Cannes leaps from one character to another. More or less at the center of the story is Alice Palmer (Greta Scacchi), an actress trying to raise money for a project she has written and wants to direct. As she confers about her game plan with a couple of friends at a café, she is interrupted by Kaz (Jaglom regular Zack Norman, star of the "legendary" Chief Zabu), an abrasive fan who insists he can help raise the money for her movie. Kaz is clearly unwelcome, but the joke is that his irritating qualities -- his pushiness -- may prove to be exactly what's required to get the job done.
Kaz uses a sleazy deception to get Alice a meeting with Millie Marquand (Anouk Aimée), a sixtysomething French star who would be perfect, he thinks, for the lead in the script -- which was supposed to be a Midwestern housewife. ("We were hoping to get Gena Rowlands," Alice has told him.) Surprisingly Millie is interested, but there is a hangup: She's also being pursued by Rick Yorkin (Ron Silver), a huge Hollywood producer who needs her to get his next project off the ground. Of course Millie means nothing at the box office in America, but -- in one of those flukes created by the star system -- she has become essential: Rick needs Tom Hanks as his lead; Tom is only interested if he gets to play opposite hot new actress Simone Duval; and Simone is only interested if Millie plays her mother. Suddenly this $90 million production is dependent on the participation of an aging French actress.
And the aging French actress is thinking of passing on Rick's big bucks and exposure to do Alice's artsy little drama. Rick decides to romance Alice to try to convince her to at least delay her film. But Kaz's money source has a tax-imposed time limit. (Why Rick doesn't simply offer to finance Alice's film himself is never made clear.)
In the midst of all this are four other main characters. Barry (Alex Craig Mann), Rick's assistant, is trying to become an independent operator. He hopes to exploit his new relationship with Blue (Jenny Gabrielle), a fragile, naive actress whose first starring role, in a no-budget indie, has suddenly made her the next big thing. Meanwhile Victor (Maximilian Schell), a director and Millie's ex, is having second thoughts about his involvement with a young Italian starlet (Camilla Campanale) who looks exactly like a younger Millie.
Jaglom shot much of this on the run during the real festival, and it's occasionally distracting to see everyone in the background looking straight at the camera, obviously wondering what's going on. On the other hand this technique -- a bit like the way Haskell Wexler used the 1968 Democratic convention in his groundbreaking Medium Cool -- lends an air of faux-documentary reality. It also led to at least one fortuitous coincidence: While the cameras were rolling, Schell was greeted and embraced by William Shatner, with whom he worked almost 40 years earlier in Judgment at Nuremberg -- a scene that remains in the finished product.
Jaglom, who frequently acts in his own films, doesn't appear in Festival in Cannes, and it works to his advantage here. Not that he's a bad actor; it's just that his movies often feel self-congratulatory, and his presence only amplifies that. He seems to feel he's the heir to the technique of John Cassavetes, yet his films are often so much less interesting that this comes across as an absurdly arrogant pose. (Jaglom was hugely supportive of Orson Welles in the latter's final years, but he's smart enough not to even try to fill Welles's shoes.)
Festival in Cannes is an amused indictment of Jaglom's own profession; he doesn't seem to be making excuses for anybody's compromised (or even downright immoral) behavior here. Rick, the Hollywood bigwig, who should be the most offensive of the principal characters, isn't. Victor, the "artist," behaves in just as tacky a fashion. And while all the men are relentlessly lying and backstabbing, the women don't behave so perfectly, either. It's amusing to see how quickly Alice -- who clearly feels superior to the pandering Kaz -- starts adopting his methods once she realizes her film might get made as a result. "I wrote this with you in mind," she tells Millie, all thoughts of Gena Rowlands forgotten.
In the final analysis, Festival in Cannes is about the ways in which the film business's insane cross-fertilization of art and commerce endangers emotional relationships. Business and romance become so intertwined that it's impossible for us, or the characters, to be sure whether they are pursuing romance for business's sake or vice versa. For a film with such a light tone, it's a strikingly dark conclusion.
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