Cannes Diary XII: After the Ball

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The dates of the Cannes Film Festival are emblazoned on its website, on the official poster and program, on our press badges: May 11th to 22nd. We booked our flights and our accommodations accordingly, with a day of preparation on the front end and a day of packing on the back. Now here it is the 22nd, and what's going on at the festival? Nothing, really. The final film of the competition was screened Friday. Last evening the awards were announced, followed by a formal dinner and, at midnight, a 20-min. display of fireworks, which we watched from the terrace of our room at the Hotel Splendid.

The pyrotechnics had some innovations: spirochete shapes that lingered dramatically in the night sky, and glowing rockets that growled asthmatically, like an airborne Darth Vader. There were also many longueurs —disquieting pauses between the effusive blasts. In other words, the fireworks show was like most of the new films we saw during the 58th session of this Riviera moviethon. Slow and dark, sometimes pretty, with the occasional explosion of sex or violence, they were cut to the prevailing fashion of international art cinema. That has been the trend for at least a generation, and no minority report from us is going to change it.

What do you do on the 12th day of a festival that turned out to last only 11 days? You go for a stroll, devour a homemade lunch in the brilliant Cote d'Azur sunshine and, of course, see a movie. Today Cannes is replaying all the films in competition in four of the Grand Palais theaters. So this morning we caught up with one of the films we had missed, Carlos Reygadas' Battle in Heaven. Sure enough, this grim, grimy Mexican melodrama fit the profile of other Cannes entries —nothing happens, a lot of it, except when there's graphic fellatio and a murder.

The chauffeur of a Mexico City bigwig has sex with his boss' daughter, then stabs and kills her. Finally he dies, smiling, because he has one last image of the girl on her knees at his loins. The film mostly tells its story in glum stares, views from the front window of a car and shots of large bodies being sexually serviced. Reygadas does pursue a distinct visual strategy: stolid actors and a restless camera (the film has one of those 360-degree tracking shots that were apparently mandatory in this year's films). And he certainly establishes a tone, though it's the same tone through the whole picture. Battle in Heaven wasn't nearly the worst film in the festival. It might even be the signature work of Cannes 2005, because it was in the mood of so many other films here, only more so.

As a sorbet, or a mouthwash, after the morning movie, we took a walk through the shopping district. It's a truism that a festival whose films often celebrate the misery of life, rather than its joys, takes place in one of the world's most radiant places. The town of Cannes is the perfect antidote for le festival de Cannes. On the streets behind the rue d'Antibes, where the small food stores are, scents of fresh bread and basil mingle with those of shellfish right out of the Mediterranean, and a hundred species of flowers. In the open barn of a market, eggs and cheeses and ripe tomatoes are arranged with pristine style. Walking back toward the hotel, we see painters and potters chatting with potential customers in the art market, held each Sunday in a plaza across from the yacht basin.

During the festival the gigantic vessels of movie billionaires were moored in that basin. Those yachts, and the Queen Mary II (where George Lucas held court, promoting Revenge of the Sith) have sailed away. The circus is moving out. Cannes, which each May is abducted for this trade show called a film festival, now returns to being its own gorgeous self.

We would thank all the little people, but there are no little people, just people the same size as us doing different jobs. We are grateful to the splendid Splendid proprietors, Annick and Chantal Cagnat, whose family has, with grace and glamour, run Cannes' most charming hotel since 1974, our second year at the festival. We were gently scrutinized and frisked by the festival security staff, many of them movie-star cute, who by the end were greeting us genially as "Madame et Monsieur Corlees." We pass along the assurances of the local store and restaurant owners that, no, they did not raise their prices during the fortnight. (Things did cost more this year, but that's because the U.S. dollar bows ever more deeply before the mighty Euro.)

Cannes is called the fortnight, la quinzaine, because it used to last a full two weeks. In the past two decades the festival has shrunk in length, even as it grew more congested with official selections. That means a half dozen films a day that Must Be Seen (though they may not prove to have been worth seeing). In the 70s, when we first came here, the schedule was more relaxed, civilized. Participants could enjoy a leisurely dinner at the great fish restaurant Tetou in nearby Golfe-Juan; or take a day off from movies, rent a car and drive to the medieval walled town of Saint Paul de Vence. But the pace here, as everywhere, has accelerated. Now we rush from one film to another, stand in longer lines, suffer communication overdose with our pocket cell phones and computers. Cannes is a little more a job, a little less what is used to be: an annual honeymoon with movies.

No matter. We loved the festival then; we love it now; we can't wait to come back. Au revoir, Cannes, et merci beaucoup. A l'annee prochaine!