At 8:30am Friday morning, I got it. What Cannes is truly all about. You get something in theory, and then there’s the moment you get it through experience. Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” had just begun, and I thought back to what a friend said was the real reason to attend Cannes: because you see the best films in the world. Literally, according to one of the money men in James Toback’s new documentary about Cannes, “Seduced and Abandoned” – more on that later – half of the year’s supply of big films debuts at the festival. Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign film with his last, “A Separation,” and as the new film began, the audience just relaxed into their seats as the film, with its first shot, took over. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize you are in very, very, very good hands.
“The Past” stars some major players in international cinema: “The Artist”’s Berenice Bejo as Marie, a working mother of two girls in suburban Paris; “A Separation”’s Ali Mosaffa as her estranged husband Ahmad; “A Prophet”’s Tahar Rahim as her boyfriend Samir.
It’s complicated. Ali has been for some years in his native Iran; Marie’s daughters are not his, yet they are close to him; he has returned at Marie’s request to divorce; yet that opening shot at the airport looks to the as yet clueless audience, as she first sees her husband behind the glass windows, as if they are a couple. Samir, meanwhile, lives with Marie and the girls with his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis, an amazing find), yet he is still married to Fouad’s mother, who lies in a coma in hospital. On the day that Ali arrives, Marie’s oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), has left school on her own and stayed away from home, which she has been doing a lot of lately.
Things will get even more complicated from there, and while some viewers I spoke to felt “The Past” was too much of a soap opera and/or lacked the sort of socio-political tension of “A Separation,” it is a deeply compelling drama. As he told TOH earlier, Farhadi comes out of the theater, and it was interesting to hear in the press conference, from Bejo, that Farhadi and the cast rehearsed for two months prior to four months of shooting. Two months! “It was as though we’d had 50 takes before we even started shooting,” said Bejo. “Asghar is like a choreographer; we have a clear-cut path. He decides on all the details and we’re real performers.”
Whatever they are, they’re very good. Bejo was charming in "The Artist," but here she’s very real, and flawed, a bit dark, a loving if somewhat terrifying mother, and she’s hot. Mosaffa quietly sucks all the attention when he enters the room; no wonder Marie loves Ahmad and hates him, too. Rahim takes the back seat here with Samir, but he’s like the quiet kid in the back seat, the one you wonder what he’s thinking; in no way does his quietness suggest weakness. And Pauline Burlet as the sad teenager Lucie quietly works her way through this adult scrum until she is front and center. The boy as mentioned is amazing, and minor characters, such as the illegal worker in Rahim’s dry-cleaning concern, are sharply drawn despite very little screen time. This is what you achieve with two months of rehearsal, and a director who know exactly what he wants.
Including a last scene that might strike those who have grown up on the Coen Brothers as slightly, slightly cheesy – or what we used to call sincerity and real emotion. Farhadi isn’t afraid to say what the past means – tears and regrets. “That’s why we all love our childhoods,” he said the other day. “It’s the only time of our lives when we are only looking forward.”
Sony Pictures Classics has picked up “The Past,” which means that you can look forward to seeing it at a theater near you.
The French have no word for clusterfuck – Google’s best effort is Putain de groupe, which I suspect is an orgy -- but they certainly know what one is: the Cannes Film Festival on the third day, when there is a sudden surge of even more journalists, or so it seemed. The lines were longer for everything, there was no place to sit in the Wifi cafe, everyone one is hindered by everyone else and the Nespresso bar was like the Whole Foods on Fairfax on the night before Thanksgiving.
You don’t believe me? Here are some numbers for this years festival: 30,000 accreditations over all, nearly 5000 of which are journalists from 2000 media outlets; 400 photographers; 600 visual technicians; 1200 employees (20 full-time year-round); a 20 million euro budget, half of which is state-financed, with other financing from the region and the city of Cannes and sponsors.
Clearly it was time for a Brazilian bikini fashion show on the beach. I hadn’t been to any parties yet, lamely, and this one sounded suitably cheesy. I pictured bronzed amazons in slivers of clothing, Samba music fueling their raucous jaunt through the crowds, while we guests slugged down giant caipirinhas. I wound up with a glass of white wine and stood around stiffly while some young local girls walked through the crowd in bikinis that seemed suspiciously unBrazilian while looking frankly uncomfortable, and who can blame them?
Afterwards, crossing the Croisette, I nearly bumped into a young American woman who had suddenly stopped cold in the street, ogling her smartphone. “OMG,” she said to her friend, “that ICM guy emailed me!” The other girl practically screamed, “What did he say?!!!”
That reminded of what Emma Watson said at the press conference for “The Bling Ring”: “I watched a lot of the Kardashians and “The Hills,” she said. “It was hard to empathize with [my character], that was my biggest challenge. I was also thinking about LA as an environment and how that would have impacted her.”
That it might have impacted her enough to think ICM agents were hot enough to cause a girl to shriek and say “OMG” a lot, is almost too much to bear.