By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 23, 2008 at 4:44AM
At the Adoration dinner-party on the roof of the Palais Thursday night, Sony Pictures Classics execs were huddling in the corner talking deals. But producer Robert Lantos and Cinetic Media's John Sloss were relaxed and enjoying the balmy moonlit evening.
They had approached SPC before the fest and showed them the latest opus from brainy Canadian helmer Atom Egoyan, whose work ranges from the high of Sweet Hereafter to the low of the muddled Armenian history lesson Ararat. SPC snapped up this smart, thoughtful, intense drama about a teenager trying to make sense of the death of his parents through provocative fictional theater pieces and chats on the Internet. This way Adoration came to Cannes with an experienced distributor behind it and no anxiety about having to sell.
There's something to be said for this old-fashioned approach. Pick the distrib who best suits your movie and nail down an exclusive sale in advance of a big fest. Harvey Weinstein denies that he was in that position on Steven Soderbergh's Che. French sales co. Wild Bunch is trying to unload North American rights to the four-hour, 18 minute biopic.
The word on the Croisette is that jury prexy Sean Penn will somehow coax his politically-aware jury into making a statement by awarding the Palme d'Or to Che. The movie is so flawed that I find this scenario implausible, but it would certainly make a statement. I could see Benicio del Toro deservedly winning an actor prize. On the other hand, Toni Servillo, the star of two strong Italian entries here, Il Divo and Gomorra, may beat him out.
At Thursday night's AMFAR Cinema Against AIDS benefit in Mougins Harvey Weinstein made a passionate plea to the jurors in the house to award the fest's big prize to Che. But will he put his money where his mouth is and acquire the film? He may well be the only willing stateside buyer, no matter how enthusiastic some of the film's critical supporters.
Here's a clip from Il Divo, which I enjoyed thoroughly. (Here's Variety's rave review.) Even though the movie is a densely-packed exploration of the intricacies of corrupt Italian politics, it managed to be an accessible, entertaining and perceptive portrait of controversial political enigma Giulo Andreotti. Steven Soderbergh could learn from Paolo Sorrentino.
At fest's end, several pics remain unsold, including James Gray's polarizing Two Lovers. Here's my column on the Cannes sale issues faced by Che, Two Lovers and Synecdoche, New York.
But after saying they might leave town empty-handed (like many of their rivals), SPC moved in on a few titles after sampling more movies at the fest than ever before--they combed through the stuff that was available in the fest and market--and went on a late-fest buying spree, bidding on James Toback's Tyson and closing North American deals on Norwegian director Bent Hamer's O'Horten and the Dardenne brothers' The Silence of Lorna.
What was left of the Cannes contingent finally saw Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, long after the distribs who attended an early buyer's screening had been spreading bad word all week. The job of buyers is to assess commerciality. Not just artistic achievement. I went to see the movie Friday night and kept waiting for the supposed incoherent indecipherable parts to kick in. The movie was clear as a bell and well-executed. No problem. High-end sophisticated art-house crowds will eat this up.
Charlie Kaufman's genius has always been a crafty blend of ingenious surprise, unexpected whimsy and genuine heartfelt human emotion.
If this movie was played as straight drama it might have a problem. But this is far more clever than that. Synecdoche has a mother-lode of humor and comedy running through it. Sure, Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is sad, bereft, lonely, plagued by Job-like maladies, deluded, obsessed with achieving artistic cred etc., but Kaufman is also laughing at him, his crazy German-speaking tattooed daughter, his problems with women, and his insanely ambitious out-sized theatre installation. The actors, especially Hoffman (below, after the press conference on Friday with co-star Tom Noonan and producer Spike Jonze), are all excellent. (Not enough of Catherine Keener, sadly.)
I had no trouble following this at all. And I might add I seemed to be the only person in the Palais laughing my head off. UPDATE: Apparently, the NYT's A.O. Scott was too. Here's his elegant Cannes wrap-up.
Synecdoche is much like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich--the very thing that makes people want to see it a second time will make it worth debating and discussing. SPC's Michael Barker told me that years ago he bought a movie at Cannes after he witnessed the LAT's Kenneth Turan and me having a big debate over it. The French pic The Dreamlife of Angels turned out to be a huge hit in France and a small hit in the U.S. A movie that gets people arguing always has a chance. (Here's SPC's Michael Barker at Wild Bunch's offices with the other hardest-working man in Cannes: IFC's Jonathan Sehring.)
While some have suggested that I should cut Soderbergh some slack on Che, I will argue that as hard as he worked on the pic over many years, he did not figure out the appropriate, disciplined shape the movie should have. By contrast, equally ambitious but thought-out is Synecdoche, which is not at all self-indulgent. Audacious and bold, Kaufman wrote carefully and well and delivered something brilliantly executed as his first directing gig. Soderbergh may have a bit of John Sayles-itis. You don't have to do it all yourself. Let some professionals help you.
I had to miss Quentin Tarantino's Master Class because it was opposite yet another panel about the new distribution future that I moderated at the American Pavilion. But the night before at the Hotel du Cap, Tarantino, Marina Zenovich (Polanski: Wanted and Desired), Tim Robbins and I had a blast talking about Sam Fuller (Robbins tapped Tarantino for his doc on Fuller which has yet to be cleared for DVD, though Robbins is working on it), how hard it is to set up movies if you don't have Harvey Weinstein as your benefactor (Robbins is in town trying to push a few things through) and how if you find a great editor like Sally Menke, you stick with her for life.
Tarantino is wrapping up writing his magnum WWII opus Inglorious Bastards. Hopefully he will learn from Soderbergh and not make it too long--he got away with releasing both Kill Bill I and II but not the double feature with Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse--unless it goes to HBO. I could also see Che go out in long cable form. Time's Richard Corliss calls both Soderbergh and Tarantino Warrior Auteurs. Agreed: listening to Tarantino talk is almost as much fun as watching his movies.