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Cannes Virgin Festival Diary 1: From 'Gatsby' to 'Heli' and Back

by Tom Christie
May 16, 2013 8:56 PM
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The evening’s fare, the Mexican film Heli, could not have been more different, perhaps purposefully so. Thankfully my watching of this dark and disturbing tale was preceded by a few glasses of wine and a simple but hardy steak frites.

Your stomach is immediately tested by director Amat Escalante ("Los Bastardos"), who opens the film with scenes of a man being hung from an overpass. That will not be the hardest thing to watch. Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man at the center of a family: his father, his sister, his wife and baby. They are a pretty normal Mexican family, not well off by any stretch but relatively solid with both Heli and his father working in a factory. His 12-year-old sister Estela, played by an affecting nonprofessional named Andrea Vergara, goes to school and falls for an older boy named Beto, 17. Training to be some sort of policeman, Beto wants to run off with Estela and get married.  It is with that in mind that he makes a decision that will change everything for this family and himself; hell comes in a flash, and a loud pounding on the door.

If with "White Ribbon" Michael Haneke was exploring the reasons Germans in the earlier part of last century were so willing to hurt other Germans, Escalante is here simply showing what happens to one Mexican family. There is no analysis of Mexican society here, no manifesto, he and co-writer Gabriel Reyes said in the press conference, merely a story that interested them. As for the violence, it was important to deal with it honestly, by showing it in a realistic fashion and a realistic context. (“Hitchcock,” Escalante said, “always said that’s its more powerful not to show something. But I am doing the opposite here.”)

Cannes Palais cards

Arguably, he goes too far, but what is almost as disturbing as the violence itself is those who are committing it. This is a fiction, Escalante cautions, but one based on truths.  And by telling it he expects that the film, the violence, becomes part of the social discourse. Escalante makes interesting choices – with the story, with sexuality, with his camera. His is a quiet, patient eye, as are his characters; the passivity of the traumatized Estela, and the aggression in Heli, in fact tell us quite a lot about the face of Mexico today.

Coming out of the Palais, it was raining chiens et chats. A crowd of swell-looking tuxedoed men and glammed-up women huddled beneath a sea of umbrellas, waiting to get into the gala "Gatsby" opening. A few blocks up the Boulevard de la Croisette, I spotted a young woman from the side, long legs in a short skirt, umbrella covering her head, talking on her smartphone, the streetlights and rain mixing around her in the way that only streetlights and rain can. It was a perfect little Cannes moment, and I quickly took out my iPhone to capture it. Behind the woman stood four policemen. As I passed them, one said something to me in French but also in a language we all understand: cop speak, authority for the sake of authority. I should have just kept walking but I stopped and that was enough for one of them to grab my phone and, before I could summon up a "pourquoi?", delete my photo.

“Because she did not want her photo taken,” explained his colleague. Very gallant, I’m sure, in a Gallic sort of way, but I doubted that very much. In any case, I didn’t know it was illegal in France to take photos of people on the street. If it is, I am living very dangerously. But as I walked on through town, I saw that the police presence was high, and special police, too. After Boston, they were perhaps especially on edge. In any case, one rogue smartphone photographer had been eliminated, more or less.

I was falling asleep as the fireworks went off in town; they were loud and grand.  The gala was over, the rain continued. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the rhythmic cry of a woman in an extremely pleasurable embrace. Ah, Cannes, I thought, more fireworks. It took me a moment to realize that what I was hearing was actually the cry of a seagull.

Thierry Fremaux
The sea-life toilet seat


  • Julia Chasman | May 17, 2013 8:45 PMReply

    You made me feel like I was there -- thank-you for that. Some of us have no passes at all this year, of any color. I was wondering if the woman under the umbrella was going to turn out to be a star -- maybe she was. Keep recording the small stuff -- sometimes words are better than pictures....

  • Amy Dawes | May 17, 2013 6:09 PMReply

    Nice writing, Tom. I'll come back for more of that.

  • SoccerboyLA | May 17, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Speaking of Cannes Diaries, check out the short film to my new book "CANNES: TAKE NO PRISONERS." on "Soccerboy in LA."

    Behind the scenes novel in which a producer shooting a documentary at Cannes has to fight tooth and nail to keep his production together and his crew safe from the festival itself...

  • Kumar | May 17, 2013 1:42 AMReply

    Damon has no films this year? Behind the Candelabra?

  • Tom | May 17, 2013 5:55 AM

    Yes, right.

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