Public screenings start at the civilized hour of 11 AM at the Morelia Film Festival, where on day two I was going to check out actress-director Sandrine Bonnaire’s “J’enrage de son absence” (“Maddened by His Absence”). But ubiquitous film festival consultant Denis DeLaRoca came over to tell me that Olivier Assayas, who hadn’t been expected to attend the festival, had flown in from Los Angeles the day before and was just about to give an unannounced Master Class right across the street in the Teatro Jose Ruben Romero. I was delighted to be able to attend. “Maddened by His Absence” would have to suffer mine.
The Teatro Ruben Romero is in a beautiful ex-Jesuitical stone building that dates to the 17th century with a gorgeous soaring vaulted and arched ceiling. There was just enough time to say hello to Olivier, who I’ve known since the early 80s, when we were both writing for “Cahiers du Cinema,” and hear about his recent travels promoting “Après Mai”: Vienna, then Germany, followed by two weeks barnstorming across France, where the film opens next week, with screenings and discussions in a different town every night.
Olivier was joined onstage by Edouard Waintrop, Director of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, and Charles Tesson, of Cannes’ Critics’ Week. The lively discussion, held in French and translated into Spanish (I took notes in English!), largely focused on the differences between “Carlos,” the fact-based 5 ½ hour film about the 60s radical Carlos the Jackal, made, Olivier said, at the first historical moment that it could be – essential information, including the memoirs of Magdalena Kopp, Carlos’ wife, came out while he was writing the script – and “Après Mai,” a semi-autobiographical but fictionalized look at the leftist politics in France in the late 60s and 70s. One thing the films had in common was that the success of combining professional and non-professional actors in “Carlos” emboldened Olivier to cast many non-professionals in “Après Mai.”
Afterwards I agreed to accompany Olivier on his PR rounds before we could have lunch, as he was leaving for Paris at 3:30. We followed an interviewer for a Mexican television station into what I thought was a church, but we were suddenly twisting our way up a narrow and vertiginous spiral staircase that took us to a balcony overlooking a beautiful 18th-century library, with an arched and vaulted ceiling that recalled the Teatro Rube Romero’s, only of faded-colored frescoed pale plaster rather than creamy stone. I was reminded of the secret passages that led to the spaces under the ceiling of the train station in “Hugo Cabret.”
The TV shoot was followed by a couple of brief interviews with print journalists. We descended the spiral staircase and I remembered another film festival surprise, when Olivier agreed to be whisked away by a fast-talking group of psychologist film buffs who wanted to discuss his work further after a screening of one of his films in Toronto. They led us to a nearby townhouse where I remembered a buffet that included some of the best fruit I’ve ever had. Olivier not only remembered the psychologists, he remembered which film it was: “A New Life.”
At the Festival’s impressive Hospitality Suite, up a staircase in a colonial arcade building off Morelia’s main square, there was another lavish buffet. We were joined by Daniela Michel, who introduced us to Carlos Reygadas, director of “Post Tenebras Lux,” who also distributes films in Mexico, including those of Bela Tarr. She urged Reygadas to skip today’s screening of Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” in favor of attending a Master Class with Abbas Kiorastami, offering to screen “The Hunt” for him at his convenience.
And, despite her crowded schedule, she offered to take Olivier on a spontaneous walking tour of Morelia’s picturesque center. Trailed by her phone-and-Blackberry-toting assistant and her driver, we trotted under arcades, walked inside the baroque 17th century Cathedral, visited an even more gilded small chapel, and ended up in the beautiful courtyards of the Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory is the first in the western hemisphere, we were told by the elegant and charming Alejandro Ramirez Magaña, President of the Morelia Film Festival, who materialized out of thin air to take Olivier back to his hotel and car to the airport, since Daniela had to join Dieter Kosslick, Director of the Berlin Film Festival, back at the Cinepolis multiplex. (Morelia, we were told, also boasts the oldest university in the hemisphere.)