Once upon a time, Orson Welles is supposed to have lamented that he spent 95 percent of his life running around trying to raise money for movies and 5 percent making them. “It’s no way to live,” he concluded, but that imbalance lasted Welles until he was seventy, when he died, alone, in a cottage in the Hollywood hills. This shriveled life seems seductive to many people, and the glory and the madness of the contract have no better display than at the Cannes Film Festival, which is about to open again for business, publicity, sex, and a just a little art.
As usual, a Palme d’Or will be awarded, and the official competition includes the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis; The Past by Asghar Farhadi (his last film was A Separation); Nebraska by Alexander Payne; Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, which has Michael Douglas as Liberace; and Only God Forgives, in which director Nicolas Winding-Refn is reunited with Ryan Gosling, his star from Drive. There are other events, outside competition: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will be the opening film; a very strange venture, All is Lost, will be screened—it has just one character and no talk, but the star is Robert Redford, and the writer-director is J. C. Chandor, who made the brilliant Margin Call. The special events also include Stephen Frears’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which explores Ali’s battle in the courts to avoid going to Vietnam (and has Frank Langella as Chief Justice Burger). And then there is Seduced and Abandoned, which is the perfect Cannes event.
What is Seduced and Abandoned? Last year, two friends elected to go to the Cannes Festival with a film crew. They were Alec Baldwin and James Toback, the director of Fingers, Two Girls and a Guy, and Tyson, and the screenwriter on Bugsy. They had three investors and their plan was to make a movie about Baldwin and Toback running around Cannes attempting to raise money for a project. In truth, this is a more candid portrait of Cannes than the distinguished films that will play at the Palais. For Cannes is basically a marketplace, attended by many money people who never bother to see a picture but take meetings everywhere from the terrace of the Carlton Hotel to the beach at night, seeking to put together projects that are hard to describe or to credit without mirth or madness.
Baldwin and Toback have a pitch: a film to be set in Iraq, with an American who is disillusioned after the war. So there will be political intrigue, action, and a little espionage. Or anything else a money man cares to name. Comedy? asks one. Sure, comedy, agree our guys. Scenes in Russia and China? Why not? The original plan (there is no evidence that it exists on paper) also involves a frank, exploratory sexual relationship—it might be called Last Tango in Tikrit, suggests Toback. Of course, Baldwin will play the man, and for the woman they’re pitching Neve Campbell, who was in When Will I Be Loved? for Toback. (That had a domestic gross of nearly $160,000.)
What follows is brutal but as funny as the John Goodman–Alan Arkin scenes in Argo. Baldwin and Toback are dreaming of a budget around $25 million, but one financier listens to the pitch and tells them that Neve Campbell is very nice, he likes Neve Campbell, but she means so little at the box office. Worse, he suggests, Baldwin is more a TV actor these days than a movie star. So he reckons that the project is worth $5 million tops. “I’m too old for that,” responds Toback, and by now he is carrying Wellesian weight that suggests he needs to direct from a chair. One financier wonders if the girl could be Natalie Portman. Then someone else, voicing the same doubts, suggests Jessica Chastain. Well, says Toback, that might work. He doesn’t want to throw Neve Campbell under the bus, but maybe they could write in another part: the girl could be Jessica, while Neve could play Alec’s disenchanted wife or his ex-wife.
The next thing you know, Jim and Alec are talking to Jessica Chastain herself, who has learned the trick of being elusively vague about everything. Then they talk to Diane Kruger, who rather flinches at the idea of uninhibited sex; she claims that she is interested, but they haven’t got her yet. What we realize is that this film project is made of rubber. It can stretch and change form to accommodate any source of money. When the American producer Mike Medavoy says it might raise $25 million, our heroes are ready to sign on the spot. The script? Well, no glimpse of it yet. Toback tells a story (he is an exuberant storyteller) about the time when Fellini wanted to persuade Marcello Mastroianni to do La Dolce Vita. I’d like to see a script, said the actor, and Fellini gave him a block of 120 pages, all blank except for the title page, which had a drawing of Mastroianni in the sea with his immense penis attracting mermaids. “That’s an interesting part,” said Mastroianni, and made the film.
Now, the Cannes Film Festival and its top prize, the Palme d’Or, can turn very dignified, as when the austere Michael Haneke took the prize twice in recent years with The White Ribbon and Amour, and Terrence Malick won for The Tree of Life. I don’t doubt that if this project in Tikrit ever gets made (and they are open to filming in Tunisia, and why not Malibu?), Toback and Baldwin will speak with splendid sincerity about artistic integrity (and hope that Neve Campbell keeps quiet). This very year at Cannes, they will introduce their Seduced and Abandoned, a hugely entertaining film, as neither documentary nor feature, but as an entirely new genre, and it may be one of the hits of the festival. Your chance to see it will come soon, I think, because HBO regards it as a very special event.
HBO is right. This film has a great deal going for it: interviews with Scorsese and Coppola, Bertolucci and Polanski; considered testimony from Ryan Gosling; anecdotes from Todd McCarthy, the film critic for The Hollywood Reporter; a judicious overview from Thierry Fremaux, the man who now runs Cannes; the poker smiles of all the money men; the ravenous press people; and best of all, the ongoing double act of Baldwin and Toback. Toback will be sixty-nine this November, while Baldwin is fifty-five. They have never worked together until now, but they make a bouncy, boyish team. They have the same scathing humor, and a matching instinct that there is no real talk now: everything is like lines from a film made long ago, or still to be completed. They are both very smart and totally absorbed in the melodrama of being themselves.
And here is the point: they are typical of the kind of people who flourish at Cannes and in the film business as a whole, because they can hold opposed ideas in their heads at the same time. For example: how can we make a great movie and who’s going to pay for this round of drinks? It’s a board game where you have to pay for the drinks, the hotel room, the limos, and the tuxedos because the next deal may depend on that assurance. It was the Hungarian mogul Alexander Korda who said, long ago, that the way to handle Hollywood was to arrive in town, stay at the best hotel, be seen with the most beautiful women at the most expensive restaurants, charge everything but tip lavishly. And wait for offers. It still works.
Seduced and Abandoned is a title that hints at self-pity in the guys: the system will seduce them into making a picture and then toss them on the scrap heap. But the system has exactly the same feelings. Everyone knows that everyone else is a rascal—but your friend and your rascal. There may be some lofty, if not pretentious, works coming to Cannes this year, loaded down with integrity and art—a version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying by James Franco could be one, and The Great Gatsby may be another. But then there might be a masterpiece or two, like A Separation and Amour, or a sensational entertainment that simply captures every imagination and makes a ton of money—like Pulp Fiction, Blow-Up, The Wages of Fear, and The Third Man, all of which won the Palme d’Or in their time.
Meanwhile the serious cinephiles at Cannes will ignore so many things—the sun, the sea, the food, the countryside, even the sexual invitations—in the effort to cram five or six films into every day. For the French, Cannes is a way of saying, look, here is the south of France, a reminder to tourism. It is so expensive an event that you know for certain that few people there are paying their own way. They are on some kind of expense account, like children who want Daddy to keep them funded. Seduced and Abandoned is exhilarating because it suggests that these sophisticated infants, these self-pitying pirates, these people who know a bus is always coming if someone needs to be disposed of, might also be geniuses for a moment. Orson Welles said it wasn’t worth the exchange, 5 percent of movies for 95 of exhaustion and disappointment. But he, Toback, Baldwin, and three-quarters of the men and women in Cannes trust no other way to die.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.