FEATURE

A WEEK AT THE DEAUVILLE
AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

By Grant Rosenberg


At the awards ceremony for the 27th Festival du Film Americain de Deauville, France, the logos of the corporate sponsors were flashed on the screen, each having its own private curtain call. Products of these companies, ranging from newspapers to chocolate coffee to alcohol, have been liberally distributed all week at various parties and screenings. And it all culminated here, with the large audience applauding for each. What began as a polite appreciation for the sponsors became, after the first few, a sort of impromptu market research survey; a clap-o-meter for the level of approval the audience had for each company. Nestle was well received, as was Canal Plus Television, but it was J&B, as well as Moet & Chandon Champagne, that brought the house down.

And so it is with festivals in general—a contest of pleasing the audience. But here it’s a bit different; as a film festival in Europe, Deauville is unique in that it shows only American films. The screenings are open to the public in addition to the media, and it showcases the latest work from a nation oft-maligned for its lowest common denominator entertainment. Here, with films such as Ghost World, Bully, Series 7, The Business of Strangers, Bartelby, Queenie in Love, Storytelling and Double Whammy, there is undoubtedly a sense of pride that yes, we too can make interesting, unconventional films that feature complicated relationships and original storytelling. And then there were the films like American Pie 2, The Fast and the Furious, Someone Like You and Swordfish, but that’s another story.


I arrived in Deauville three days into the festival, in the late afternoon, and picked up my press pass before going about trying to find a hotel room. With my big pack on my back, I walked around the center of Deauville—a pleasant, clean town that has been a vacation playground for the rich for over a century. After encountering several hotels that were completely booked, I found one with a vacancy—and it even has a toilet and shower in the room, which is not often the case.

I went back to the festival area, about an 8-minute walk. Everything is situated almost on the ocean itself, maybe 500 yards from the beginning of the beach. By the time it got dark, the temperatures coming off the Atlantic were probably in the low 50s, something I had not anticipated.

The first film I saw was Bully. Most of the events of the festival were held in a convention center of sorts, which has within it a large auditorium with a movie screen. Attached to it was the festival village, featuring the press conference tent as well as smaller ones for the corporate sponsors and the official Canal Plus interview room. In addition, there is a cinema in the casino of Deauville, which is across the street from the main festival area and seats probably an audience of 500.

Afterwards, I went to a restaurant near my hotel and, having been aware of my lack of fruits and vegetables, ordered a salad to go. The waiter consulted with someone and came back with a salad on a nice china plate and told me to bring the plate back in the morning. I walked back to my hotel, sat at the small desk in my room and prepared to eat my salad. Realizing that I was without a knife and fork, I ate it with my fingers, which is quite messy and not so easy when you get down to the pieces of corn. It was quite liberating, actually.

My hotel room and the harbor of Deauville.

The next day, I returned the plate and headed over to the festival, where I attended the press conference for Bully. Director Larry Clark was there, along with Rachel Miner and Bijou Phillips, looking rather bored. This would be the first of many press conferences, and patterns emerged immediately. Most conferences had about 40 photo and print journalists. Of them, 80 percent or so were French, the rest being other Europeans with a few British journalists and maybe one or two Americans, including myself. The guests would be introduced and then photographers would rush forward and take pictures. Next, questions would be asked and translated into English by the translator, who also sat on the panel. The filmmaker or actor would respond, often at length, while the translator took notes. Then the same amount of time would elapse as the translator went to work. You could see who the English-speaking reporters were when they clicked off their tape recorders as the answer was being translated into French.

For the most part the reporters asked interesting and intelligent questions about the productions of the films themselves, about the research that would go into roles and how the films were received in the States. I did not hear any gossip questions. I was waiting for Rachel Miner, a star of Bully, to be asked about her divorce from Macaulay Culkin, but the questions put to her were all on the level. Every once in awhile, the quintessential Entertainment Tonight/Access Hollywood question would be asked: "What was it like to work with so-and-so?"

Immediately following each press conference, no matter the level of celebrity of the guest, the reporters and photographers would rush up to the front to get autographs. I was shocked the first time I saw this; I thought it was quite unprofessional. I thought those with access passes were jaded or had been around celebrity enough that it didn’t compute as Beatlemania for them. Yet whether it was Julianne Moore or the young and still practically unknown Rachel Miner, they rushed up to get signatures.

Julianne Moore being hounded for autographs. The red carpet area before a film premiere.

Later in the day, I attended a screening of The Man Who Wasn’t There, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was the first time that I was in the main auditorium of the festival, a large area with probably 2,000 clean, full-bodied seats and quite a large screen. There is a grand entrance to this area, with fans kept back by security guards and fences.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a good film, not my favorite of theirs, but a delight to watch. Taking place a few years after World War II, it’s shot in lush black and white. One of its joys is the recurring image of Billy Bob Thornton’s pristine face, with its creases and rough spots. The film, like Blood Simple or The Big Lebowski before it, is a genre film that is turned on its head, with modern commentary behind it. It deserves another viewing.

Unfortunately, there was nobody to represent the film, and that was obviously disappointing to the audience and reporters. The Coen Brothers, like Woody Allen, seemingly can do no wrong here in France. Each of their films is eagerly anticipated, where it is applied to a critical standard akin to, "Is it more brilliant than the last, or just excellent?"

Mark Rydell, director of the film James Dean, and James Franco, the actor who plays Dean.
Following The Man Who Wasn’t There was a screening for the TNT movie James Dean. As with the rest of the world, there is an obsession with James Dean here. Mark Rydell, the film’s director (who knew Dean back in the early 1950s when they were both starving actors), treated Deauville as the debutante Coming-Out Ball for James Franco, the young actor who plays Dean. Rydell, both in his introduction to the film and at the press conference the following morning, spoke of Franco as an up-and-comer with talent equal to Dean’s. Franco was feted, treated as a huge talent that We Saw Here First. Rydell gave some anecdotes about Dean and how it was unlikely that he would have lived, given the dangerous lifestyle he had. As an example, Rydell related the day the two of them were walking down the street in New York and Dean was talking about bull-fighting, one of his new passions. He then took off his coat and walked out into the street, making like a matador holding the red fabric, pulling it away just as a bus whisked by, brushing against his shirt. The film, which played for TV in the States, was well-received. And then Rydell and Granco left town and all was forgotten by the time the next film was screened.



Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff.
I had seen Ghost World before I left Chicago and consider it one of the better movies this year. The story of people who are at turning points in their understandings of themselves and their places in society, it’s a quite funny look at the underbelly of pop culture. Based on a comic book, it works because it presents these people in genuine human moments that feel both manufactured and yet completely natural. Terry Zwigoff’s press conference was much like I expected it to be, and he was much the man I had anticipated—based on interviews I had read and his previous film, the documentary Crumb about cult cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Terry Zwigoff reminds me of Peter Sellers. He seems to be in on a joke that the rest of us are not—and I suspect that the joke is that we are all fools for not having the right amount of self-loathing. He is a very intelligent man and quite funny, probably the most interesting person thus far to sit down with for dinner. Zwigoff stated that making the film helped him release a lot of anger about his youth and not fitting in and remarked that he still goes to a psychiatrist, a man who happens to be Clifford Odet’s son.

This also was the first time that I asked a question as a journalist. After raising my hand, a microphone was passed to me:

Gadfly: How would you say that being a documentary filmmaker informs you when you go to make a feature?

Zwigoff: Some of it carries over, some of it overlaps. Composition, cutting, continuity, coverage, you know…but acting is a whole ‘nother thing. You can’t just lump all documentary films together. That’s like saying all foreign films are the same. I never made documentary films in a very cinema verite fashion, just letting the camera run. I just never had enough money. Otherwise, I probably would have. But I always manipulated the "actors" and prompted them and staged things because I had no money and things had to happen. So I had a little bit of experience—and it was very frustrating, which is why I went into features—trying to get actors, in a sense, who were playing themselves, to give "performances" in my documentaries. I had seen things that I wanted to recreate. It was frustrating not having a trained actor to do that. The main thing I learned from documentaries is something I witnessed from Woody Allen. I got to visit him on the set of Everyone Says I Love You for about a week. And I saw something happen on the set that was very interesting to me. He was filming a scene and there were supposed to be some very wealthy people at this party. So they hired a bunch of extras to play wealthy people, and they dressed them in the finest evening clothes and jewelry and had their hair done just right. Woody looked around and said, "This just isn’t working." He didn’t know what was wrong with the thing, but he just stepped back and tried to figure out what looked wrong with the whole. Eventually he just figured it out, that these extras who were being paid minimum wage to impersonate rich people did not hold themselves like rich people. So he fired them all and hired actors to play the extras. When I was on that film, oftentimes I would try to step back and see what seemed untruthful about it. It was very helpful to me. If we’re in a restaurant scene, I try to think about what people in restaurants actually look like in real life. In most films, they are very happy and animated and talking. In real life, people just sit there—sort of glum, don’t talk and just eat their food. I tried to recreate that. It’s closer to the way I saw the world.

When asked how this film about outsiders was ultimately distributed by MGM, despite production money from overseas, Zwigoff explained the technicalities of the contract, as well as the pressure of the studio for a less ambiguous ending. As cynical as one expected him to be, his response turned into a diatribe against the American movie studio system:

American films are marketing tools, not art. They are used to market soundtracks, T-shirts, they sell you DVDs…they don’t give a shit about art in America, in the film business. It’s not part of the equation. If it wasn’t for the executive producers of this film from Grenada Films, they held final cut of this film and they let me make the film I wanted to make…it never would have happened in America. They would have grabbed the film away from me and would have added Backstreet Boys, N’Sync and Britney Spears…and I probably would have hung myself if I saw that."

Responding to a question about winning an award at Sundance for Crumb, Zwigoff said:

In America they don’t care about the prize, they care about how much money a film makes. And it made a lot of money for a documentary. Unfortunately, what I did was go on a festival circuit after that because I wanted a vacation and to see other countries. And by the time I came back to Hollywood a year later and pitched my next film, they had forgotten due to the short memory there. It was like, "Crumb, what was that?" [They asked.] I had to start over. My agent is screaming at me now to sign a deal, this week. "Don’t go to Deauville, sign a deal."

By the time Johnny Depp arrived in Deauville, everything was in full swing. The days were simple—waking up, having some breakfast, usually coffee or hot chocolate along with some preserves on a baguette. Then it was off to screenings, followed by press conferences, then back again, with parties in the evening at a place adjacent to the casino.

The press conference for Depp’s film, Blow, took place before the film’s official screening (after the press screening), and it was the first peek people would have at him. He was by far the most Grade-A celebrity so far, and because I didn’t have the highest access press pass, I was not allowed into the conference tent, which was, of course, packed to capacity. The cult of celebrity began immediately. I stood outside the open entrance to the tent, held back along with many reporters as well as Deauville locals and Depp fans. One journalist who had the same pass as I did tried to enter the tent once Depp began to speak but was held back by a security guard. She persisted, as if in a trance, pushing against his arm. He tried to be nice, letting her walk a little bit closer to the entrance, as he continued to tell her she could not enter. Finally, she was able to get close enough to just get a peek at Johnny, for a quick moment. She had seen him with her own eyes, and that was enough. Later, at the screening of Blow, Depp was introduced as other actors and filmmakers are. Thousands of camera flashes went off as he took to the stage. Instead of going over to the microphone to speak, he merely stood at the edge of the stage and let the people have what they wanted. It was rather unsavory, as if he was mocking us for merely wanting a piece of his body and not his mind or his acting talent. After a few moments he took his hat off, messed up his hair and looked around patiently. It was as if he was a nude model, offering up his body and not concerning himself with our lack of curiosity about his soul. Then he put his hat back on and walked away. The lights went down, and the film began.

Actor Johnny Depp.

One of the best films I saw, and one that has been open in the States for several weeks, is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This film is a musical, a tragic musical with a sense of humor and history about a transgender singer who is the victim of a botched sex change operation. It’s part Rocky Horror, part Velvet Goldmine and part Spinal Tap. The star and creator of the film is John Cameron Mitchell, an actor who performed Hedwig for years as a live production. A charming actor, full of humor and many transgender double-entendre jokes, he became the darling of the festival. And he speaks a little French, which goes a long way over here. The film seemed to transcend the language barrier and was received quite enthusiastically.

John Cameron Mitchell the creator/director/writer/actor of Hedwig and the Angry Itch at his press conference.
Daniel Monihan, the director of Series 7.

The film Series 7 was also shown, a reality show spoof where each contender has to kill the other in order to advance to the next level. Like the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, the contenders are chosen randomly—unlike the popular shows such as Survivor that have popped up in the few years since director Daniel Monihan wrote the screenplay. The film was shot on digital video for under a million dollars, and it seemed clear to me that the Americans in the audience appreciated it more than the French, since the movie itself takes the form of the television show. At his press conference, Monihan said the film was completed before the recent boom in these shows, and it proved to be quite prescient in not only its subject matter but even in its editing patterns. Shows like Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story follow the same editing patterns with their use of music and the form of promo-ing just before the commercial breaks. When asked about the American response to the film by critics, Monihan said, "I had hoped there would be more controversy, that people would be rioting in the theaters, screaming, wanting their money back. But people understood it and it was very well received. An interesting thing that happened in the U.S; I thought that the more sophisticated high-brow press would really appreciate it and the more tabloid press would maybe come around to it, but probably oppose it. In some cases it was really the opposite, with the tabloid press embracing it and a couple of high-brow critics against it."

The Deauville festival was the occasion for the world premiere of World Traveler, a film by Bart Freundlich starring Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore (Freudlich’s companion and with whom he has a son). I didn’t particularly like his first film, The Myth of Fingerprints, but I think World Traveler is a solid film. I saw it at a press screening, and because I was two minutes late I saw the film again at its public premiere, which was attended by Freundlich, Moore and Crudup. In addition to this film, the festival had a retrospective of a handful of Julianne Moore films.

Clockwise from left: Julianne Moore with Billy Crudup. Director Michael Ciminio posing with Moore.
Bart Freundlich (Director of World Traveler). Freundlich with Moore.

Just before a screening of her film End of the Affair, Moore was given a sort of Deauville Appreciate Award, handed to her by none other than writer and infamous director Michael Cimino. Afterwards, I was making my way to the press room and was stopped in front of some velvet ropes across the way. A crowd gathered behind me, and moments later Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup came out of the cinema and began to sign autographs. Moore came over my way and signed photos being handed to her on my left and right. And there I was, standing calmly waiting to pass down the hall. It must have looked suspicious, to be standing right in front of her and not asking for an autograph. At that moment, I stood looking at Moore and began to marvel at the momentum and power of celebrity and the effect of the cinema screen. She was just a woman, a pale woman a couple of inches shorter than me, who was making simple, light small talk. And yet she was also on the cover of Vanity Fair and other magazines, the woman who has taken on the role of Clarice Starling. No matter how much we recognize the humanity of these people, it is difficult to ignore the aphrodisiac of Hollywood.


The parties during the week had a routine. They began like bars at about 10 p.m., evolved into discos by midnight, then turned into clubs by 2 a.m. For those who were left after that, it became a bit of a rave. Early on at a party one

Crispin Glover and Bartelby director Jonathan Parker.
night I encountered Crispin Glover, who was at the festival for the film Bartelby. I couldn’t resist the opportunity and asked him about his appearance on Letterman some years ago when he seemed to go off the deep end and almost kick Dave in the face. The appearance was covered in the press for a week. It turns out that it was a planned script, where everyone knew but Dave himself.

At these parties, people let their guards down. The security guys dance with the reporters that during the day they are blocking and keeping at bay. The stars and filmmakers that do come have more relaxed discussions with journalists. I spoke with Tilda Swinton for ten minutes about some of her other films and about Chicago. I recommended some interesting critiques of The Deep End to its directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel.

Later, I found myself in a conversation with a producer/writer of Bartelby, a conversation that I initiated, and was asked why I didn’t really like the film, a modern telling of the Herman Melville story, Bartelby, the Scrivener. I realized later that my real problems were with the story itself, but at the moment I found myself caught between being honest and diplomatic. I dropped the ball, not being able to articulate my issues with the film. Note to self, as Norm MacDonald used to say, have fully formed argument when discussing a work of art with its maker, especially if you are going to be critical.

The short films were shown on Saturday, and most were quite good, each proving that the filmmakers have the talent to be making films for a long time to come.

The awards ceremonies gave its highest honors of the grand prix du jury to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and to the short film The Good Things, directed by Seth Wiley and starring Wil Wheaton (from Stand By Me). Ghost World won the Prix du Jury, and though director Terry Zwigoff was here earlier in the week and had planned to be back for the awards, it turned out that he didn’t make it back. Why? Because he went to visit some friends in the Southwest of France (presumably Robert Crumb, who moved there several years ago after Zwigoff made Crumb). And according to a fax he sent to be read on his behalf, he ate so much dessert the night before that he began to suffer from diarrhea and felt it would not be wise to be far from a modern toilet. Whether or not it was in good taste to give the formal audience such detail, it did get a laugh, in both languages.

The celebrating went into the wee hours of Saturday at the casino’s disco. On Sunday, everyone trickled out of Deauville, a bit burnt out but happy, it seemed. It was not easy to get to all the films, but for the most part it was a very good schedule that accommodated as many people as possible.

They love films here in France. They relish the fun movies and appreciate the smarter ones. Sure, there is American crap, as I overheard two British journalists say in the press room, but it was a full week of movies in a country, a culture, that finds joy in the variety, all over the spectrum. Not even the United States can say the same, if you look at the numbers.