You would not expect Jim Jarmusch to make a horror film about zombies. Or The Cannes Festival, for that matter, to open the programme with the result. But that’s what happened this year, and the smart opening night audience seemed to like the result well enough. The critics, however, were a little more doubtful the next day, despite a cast which includes the ever-popular Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Adam Driver and Steve Buscemi, to say nothing of Tom Waits. The scene is set in small-town America where Murray is the soon to retire as police chief and Driver is his young successor to be. A strange woman has arrived in town (Swinton) who has been engaged as the new coroner and who carries with her a large Scottish sword which she eventually uses as an instrument to cut off the zombies heads. At first, we find that something odd is happening in town since the light doesn’t go down in the evening, the clocks go funny and other strange goings-on appear. It is, says the local news channel, because the earth has tilted on its axis, possibly because of polar fracking. Yes, the film is political too, since Jarmusch loathes Trump and it shows. At one point, a diner at the local eatery (Buscemi) wears a hat with Make America white again on it, while every so often the film makes a joke of America’s present predicament. The zombies don’t arrive until halfway through the tale, coming up from their graves to eat half the cast and then get beheaded by the doughty coroner.
Obviously a pitch black comedy is intended, rather like a less hilarious Shaun of the Dead, and of course, John Carpenter’s oeuvre is also referenced. But one way and another the film is slowish and a bit piecemeal, with Murray unable to show his full range and people like Iggy Pop, who looks like a zombie anyway these days, have very little to do. The flailing swordswoman Swinton goes to it with a will in long blonde tresses and the zombies themselves are straight out of George Romero’s catalogue. But somehow the humour and thrills don’t quite fit together all that comfortably, as if Jarmusch was determined to do something a little different but didn’t quite know how to make a popular horror too. Enjoyable, yes, but not by any means as good as his lovely comedy Paterson, which was also shown at Cannes.
No one could accuse the Venice Festival, one of the oldest in the world, of trying to ape Cannes. But if the French festival is still considered the best in the world, Venice is fast catching up. Year after year, its films get more Academy nominations than Cannes and, under Alberto Barbera, its director for several editions, it is becoming more fashionable by the year. Started off by Mussolini as a platform for Italian films, the festival has had a chequered career, collapsing entirely in the eighties and thereafter under the aegis of directors treading carefully among the thorny pitfalls of Italian politics.
At one stage you could listen to Mussolini’s grandson at the piano in the flashy Excelsior Hotel of an evening, and until it was sold as a block of flats the giant Hotel Des Bains, with the best pool in Venice, used to put up dozens of the most favoured critics. I remember having breakfast there when the shock of Princess Diana’s death came through.
I also remember being favoured by an interview from the great John Ford, who hated critics but had a retrospective at the festival curated by Peter Bogdanovich. He must have left it to his publicity people to accord the few interviews he did and it was in fear and trembling that I knocked on the door of his suite at the Excelsior at the appointed time. His wife opened the door and said that Jack (the name he used) was ill, having eaten some fish the night before which had poisoned him. She didn’t think he was capable of doing the interview. But before I could leave there came a stentorian voice from the general direction of the bathroom—“Come on in. I can deal with two shits at once!”
On another even more embarrassing occasion I had walked out of a new Fellini film to have a pee and, as I was standing relieving myself, I realised that a cloaked Fellini was in the stall next to me. Turning to him, I said how much I have enjoyed the film. What else could I say? But, alas, as I did so, I peed on his shoes.”If you do this to people whose films you like” he said, ” what do you do to people whose films you don’t like?” Despite this disaster, we eventually became friends and he sent me a magnificent book illustrating all his films, with his signature on the title page. Don’t urinate on it, he wrote…
These, however, are the good years despite money being tight and the Venice Lido, where the Festival is domiciled, being even more expensive than Cannes. And this year the Golden Lion was won by Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director, with Roma. Roma is not the Italian capital but a poor suburb of Mexico City where Cuaron was brought up, and the film has plenty of semi-autobiographical elements about it. Its central character is Cleo, the family servant, who gets pregnant by a ridiculously macho man and eventually almost dies in childbirth. The film shot beautifully in black and white, and clearly not as ambitious as Cuaron’s other movies, like his otiose Harry Potter film and Gravity. But so well is it modelled and played, and so sympathetic its view of the servant and the family she serves that the jury apparently unanimously gave it the top prize. Roma is certainly preferable to the grandiose movies that tend to get prizes these days. And though the head of the jury was Latin-American and thus probably favoured the film, there was no controversy whatsoever about the prize. Sometimes small is better than large.
Even so, the film I would have preferred to win was Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, a British costume drama by the eccentric but talented Greek director of Dogtooth and The Lobster. Set in the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and superbly decked out in clothes and settings of the time, it not only looks a treat but is about as far as the usual historical epic as it is possible to be. Queen Anne, if you didn’t know, had terrible gout (she had to be carried to her coronation in a litter). She was also heavily influenced by the Duchess of Marlborough who possibly had a Lesbian affair with her. The third leading character in this extraordinarily spiteful, and probably truthful, film is Abigail, the young cousin of the Duchess who successfully inveigles her way up the greasy pole of Anne’s eccentric court.
The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is brilliantly sour but it is the acting that remains the film’s chief joy. Olivia Colman as the ageing wreck of a Queen is superb, suggesting a shrewdness without which the character could have simply become a parody, while Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess has never been better. Emma Stone as the young interloper is equally good. If one or other of this trio is not nominated for an Oscar I will eat my hat. But what I was really pleased about was the film’s probable accuracy to history. It seemed not to put a foot wrong, which is exceptional if you look at the rubbish albeit entertaining view of the past on television just now. Go see The Favourite, and marvel at Olivia Colman, who justly won the best actress here.
The Coen Brothers attempt at a kind of anthology of Westerns (six affectionate unconnected episodes) won the best screenplay award but was disappointingly uneven. Not a patch on something like Fargo and both over and under the top at the same time. It lasted 133 minutes and one of the weaker episodes could well be dispensed with. Then we might have sat back and enjoyed the result of their fondness for the genre, now practically dead on its feet but still worth remembering with affection.
Lastly, there were two biopics of artists and one updating of a horror movie on a packed programme. Willem Dafoe won the best actor Lion for a fine performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate and since Schnabel’s is a painter himself, the film looked good and tasted authentic. So did Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, an enormously long summation of Gerhard Richter’s chequered career. It lasted well over three hours and desperately needed an editor not quite as eccentric as the director. Words fail me after Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the seventies horror Suspiria. The story, set in the Germany of the seventies, has Tilda Swinton as the boss of a weird dance troupe (very good) whose punishing for sins takes place underground. It is all very stylish and well-directed. But Argenta was all the better for not being so bloody ambitious and pretentious in the earlier film.
As someone who met Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, John Ford, Satyajit Ray, Howard Hawks, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and many others in the course of a long stint as the Guardian’s film critic, I am often asked who was my favourite movie star. The answer is none of them. My favourites are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Mind you, I was in my mid-teens when I met them, which probably led to the kind of adolescent hero worship I might later have abjured.
My mother had taken me to the London Coliseum to see them perform. It was 1947 and they were in their 50s, with 20 years as a double act under their belts. It was the matinee of a variety show and they were top of the bill; Elsie and Doris Waters, a pair of well-loved comedians – known as Gert and Daisy – and Rawicz and Landauer – famous piano duettists who played Chopin twice as fast as anybody else – were on the undercard.
I can’t say that Laurel and Hardy were at their very best. Maybe the stage was not their natural habitat, although they were still treading the boards together well into the 1950s, as seen in the new biopic Stan & Ollie, in which Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play the pair during their gruelling final tour of Britain. But I was thrilled to bits just to see them and I asked my mother at the interval whether I could meet them. She asked the theatre manager and he came back with a note. It said: “Yes, but don’t bring your mother …”
The manager took me to the door of their dressing room and knocked, but left before Hardy answered the door. “Come in, young man,” he said. “We have tea and buns on the way for you. This is Stan, by the way, as you can see by his hat. He seldom takes its off, even in bed.”
I was tongue-tied. But when the tray of tea and buns came in, I tucked in enthusiastically. Whereupon Hardy took a bun from the tray, placed it on his chair and sat on it. It was, of course, squashed flat. I’m pretty sure he did it to amuse me. But you never knew with Hardy, who preferred playing golf to working.
Laurel looked horrified, especially when Hardy offered the flat bun to me. He was the master of most situations and the pair’s directors invariably deferred to him on set. He was also the British one, born in Ulverston, Lancashire, in 1890, and was once employed by the music-hall impresario Fred Karno as an understudy to Chaplin. Hardy was born in 1892 in Harlem, Georgia and drawn to the movies from his teens.
It was clear that they were ageing. The cheers that welcomed them at the theatre, which was three-quarters full, were not so enthusiastic when they left the stage, which may be why they were prepared to entertain a young boy so anxious to see them. If so, they gave no sign of that to me.
They were determined to entertain me and they did so royally, asking me about my school, the subjects I liked and whether I preferred the theatre or the cinema. When I told them I often went to the newsreel cinema on Victoria station, which invariably had a Laurel and Hardy short, along with the boring documentaries and songs, they were clearly very pleased. And they told me that many countries had different names for them. In Iran, they were called the Fat and the Skinny; in Poland, Flip and Flap; in Germany, Chubby and Dumb; and, best of all, in India, Stout and Worrywart.
We spent almost an hour together before they called for the manager, who took me back to my mother, who was waiting impatiently in the foyer. I will never forget that flat bun, or the stories they told me about appearing on television and being informed that they were being introduced to 6 million people: “That will take rather a long time,” said Laurel. Another of his gags I recall from that day was: “I was dreaming I was awake, but I woke up and found myself asleep.”
But it was never verbal jokes that defined the pair. It was the extraordinary way they dovetailed, almost telepathically. No one did double-takes better than Hardy; and few did weeping at fate’s enormity better than Laurel. They once did a short film in which they used 3,000 cream pies, most of which were upended over Hardy.
But it wasn’t the pies that most intrigued me. In another short, the pair sat together in the front seats of an old car that Hardy couldn’t start. And, for a full three minutes they managed to make everyone laugh, just by the various expressions on their faces. It was a masterpiece of comedy I shall never forget, and so was the little dance they did together at the end of their Oscar-winning film The Music Box. Just meeting them was one of the most cherishable moments of my life.
The 75th Venice Festival has recently managed to trump Cannes where its opening films are concerned. Gravity and La La Land won Oscars and no doubt Damien Chazelle’s The First Man, the story of Armstrong’s moon landing, will get nominated too. Unfortunately, the film starts with two big disadvantages. The first is that we all know what happened so there is a lack of dramatic content. The second is Armstrong himself, described as “introspective” by Chazelle, which is a polite way of saying boring. And that is certainly the way Ryan Gosling plays him. Apart from the moment he bursts into tears when his first child dies, he maintains a straight face throughout, leaving Tina Foy as his wife to do the emoting (which she does very well). She is a woman who wants an ordinary life with her husband and kids, and he, of course, has to train and train until he is selected to lead the expedition which sees him touch down on the moon. That final episode is well handled by Chazelle. But the first half the film is almost as dull as Armstrong himself.
The two best films we have seen so far are Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Lanthimos, The Greek director of the eccentric The Lobster and the less eccentric The Killing of a Sacred Deer has chosen the gout-stricken British monarch Queen Anne and her influential confidante and lover as his subject matter, with the Duchess of Marlborough making up a trio of early 18th century women who dominated the court at the time.
The film is superbly mounted, mostly at Hatfield and brilliantly dressed too. But if looks could kill, it’s the acting which ought to be remembered. Olivia Colman is wonderful as the distressed old Queen whose word is law even as Parliament is flexing its muscles more than before, while Emma Stone has never been better as her helpmeet. There remains another fine performance from Rachel Weisz as the ambitious Duchess, introduced to the court as a servant, pushed into a brothel but somehow making herby up to or near the top of the pecking order.
This is a period film with a distinct difference, equipt with a fine script and a wonderfully cynical view of English heritage. My historian wife, who actually works within this period, says it is remarkably accurate not just to the looks of the whole thing but also to the psychological implications of a true story. It makes Game of Thrones seem as ludicrous as it actually is, however, entertaining. The Favourite is something entirely different and Lanthimos’ best film so far.
Cuaron’s Roma looks at first like a smaller enterprise than his other films. But in the end this summation of his early life in the Mexico City suburb of Roma is extremely well-judged since its realist view of things does not preclude a real sense of emotion and feeling, so that what athirst sees a very simple story of poverty and aspiration becomes full of the kind of detail we don’t often get in this sort of thing. It was appreciated not just by the critics but by the public as well and is almost certain to get a major prize.
Whether we need another A Star is Born is questionable. But if it stars Lady Gaga in all her glory it is at least arguable that perhaps we do. Actually, Bradley Cooper’s version went down surprisingly well, as did Lady Gaga herself. She is no Judy Garland and Mr Cooper who plays the James Mason part as well as directs is certainly not of Mason’s standard. But the pair do very creditably as the young singer picked up by the alcoholic country rock star and turned into a star herself before the drink and jealousy get to him. It’s a version of the story that is essentially full of Hollywood cliche. But played with some conviction it lets its audience wallow in a period when this sort of thing was regular fodder. Lady G’s study in vulnerability is cleverly emphasised by the director who apparently scrubbed all the make-up off her face for the first scenes between the two leads. Okay, the songs aren’t wonderful but at least Lady G and Mr Cooper sing them with conviction, and those who love this sort of thing will probably shed tears at the right moments. Lady G is a modestly good actress who doesn’t try to hog the limelight, and Cooper has to be commended for his shrewd work as director as well as co-star. Unless I’m well off-beam, the film will be a success and, compared to some modern Hollywood biggies, deserves it.
The problem with Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is that, though the acting is more than adequate, there are no outstanding performances to gloat over. It is not that kind of movie, being a thoroughly researched document about a troubling aspect of British history that too few really know about. The passages leading up to the massacre itself (very well done) are pretty talkie and Leigh does not interfere with them as director. He often shoots them straight on without fuss and without trying to add much to them. The result is straightforward but a little academic, as if Leigh is anxious to let us know the awful truth without burnishing it as a film-maker. It’s a long film, like so many in this festival. But until the final scenes, it doesn’t hold the attention nearly as tightly as many of this director’s other films. Peterloo is an amazing story that deserves to be told. But we needed a little more dramatic conviction before the massacre is thrust upon us.
Another much-anticipated film was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is an affectionate summation of what the film-makers love about a genre which seldom hits the big screen today. It comprises half a dozen separate stories, linked by well-known songs and performed by some well-known Western character actors. The result is a mixed bag, some excellent and some indifferent and, once again, the film is too long for its own good and could easily be edited down a bit. You could say that for a great many movies at this year’s Festival which displayed a number of films worth 100 minutes or so but spread out beyond two hours. Even so, the programme proved that Venice, in its 75th year, is still as relevant as Cannes. And some would say more so this year. The fact that half dozen Netflix movies, rejected by Cannes, were shown here made a large difference. I think Venice was right personally but the French still have a point.
I’ve been going to the Cannes Festival for over thirty years, and there are two things that are certain. It’s totally changed from the old days when you could meet someone like Joe Losey on the Croisette and take a coffee with him unencumbered by three or four PRs anxious that he didn’t say anything unwise. Nowadays, if he was still alive, you could only meet him within the company of six or seven others at a roundtable somewhere private where one of the assembled keeps on asking: “when are you coming to Jerusalem, Mr Losey?”
Joseph Losey in Cannes
The other certainty is that every Cannes is different from the last. It’s not just a matter of the films, good bad or indifferent. It’s also the weather, which can be awful or wonderful, and the people too who can be awful or wonderful too. I remember walking the Croisette on my way to interview Nick Nolte and I looked up at the Windows of the Carlton Hotel, where huge adverts for films like Killer Lobsters from Mars are draped across the front windows, and this time spied, hanging out of the third floor, two large human arses. They belonged to Nolte and Gerard Depardieu who had apparently had a fun night together. Not surprisingly, my interview was cancelled. On another occasion, the French director Maurice Pialat, having been roundly booed for winning the Palme D’Or, passed by me in his limo with the window open.”Don’t worry” I said, “You deserved it!” Having little or no English, he shouted back: “Fuck off!” Ah, the old days…
This year was a quiet year. No arses hanging out of the Carlton Windows, good weather, at least while I was there, and films which were very much of the art variety. Added to that, few American stars, hotel bookings down some 30 percent and only a dozen or so parties where something like food was offered to wash down the local rose. Shocking! But if all this was slightly odd, there was Kate Blanchett leading several dozen women up the celebrated red carpet in a MeToo demo which pointed out that only one woman director had ever won the Festival’s main prize. And there was a stir when, for some unspecified reason, the man who had organised the opening and closing shows for years, was summarily dismissed by a testy Festival Director.
As for the films, Asia proved the victor, with excellent work from Lee Chang-dong, Bi Gan, Koreeda Hirokazu and Jia Zhangke. It was Hirokazu who won the Palme D’Or for Shoplifters, a naturalistic portrayal of a family who took in a stray little girl and taught her to steal along with them. The point of the film was the sheer niceness of the thieves, and the way they managed to defeat the world at large with charm and courage. Hirokazu has never made anything better but there were some who thought that Korean Lee Chang-dong should have won with Burning, a vivid thriller and love triangle about a romance between a delivery man and a beautiful girl he first met at school. When she goes to Africa, asking her to feed her cat, and returns with a rich smoothie in tow, the thriller element begins. It’s a wonderful movie which got nothing from the jury but will probably be regarded as a classic in the future because it is poetic as well as deeply sympathetic and exciting. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night gives you 3D glasses but abjures you not to put them on until the protagonist wears his. He is a man on a quest who drifts into a nightmarish darkness of murder and betrayal which develops into an extraordinarily choreographed single take over its last three-quarters of an hour. I suppose you either love or hate it. But whatever you think, here is another real filmmaker to cherish.
Ash is the Purist White by Jia Zhanke is a gangster movie which eschews the usual signs and symptoms of the genre in favour of a character study of a small-time crook and the gambling den hostess he is obsessed with and who in the end goes to prison to save him. There is a political theme running through the film, but in the main it is about the interaction of the main characters within a self- destructive world.
Few films matched this clutch of brilliant productions. But Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War did. Made in black and white, and one of the mercifully shortest of all the competition films at just under 90 minutes, it is set in post-war Poland where a pianist-composer tours villages and small halls with his lover, a music teacher. They search for local folk talent. The film is two things above all. The first is a musical and the second a wonderfully apt portrayal of the period during which hope combines with despair to fire its characters lives. Great performances too from Joanna Kulig and Agata Kuleska, as the two women in the composer’s life. Another which struck a decent blow for Europe was The Wild Pear Tree by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. But if Pawlikowski managed to tell his tale in under 90 minutes, the prolix Ceylan takes three hours, and talk dominates its story of a novelist who returns home to his rural retreat only to find his father’s gambling is ruining the family. Will the rebellious novelist ever break free? As usual with this director, there are plenty of resonant visuals and a rich tapestry of meaning beyond them. But two hours would also have been enough for a film which resonates in the mind but not necessarily In the heart.
Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman, which won the second prize of the jury and was lucky to do so, is set in seventies Colorado Springs where the counties first black policeman is part of an undercover unit trying to infiltrate the KKK. Based on a real case, Lee flavours it with humour and a kind of Tarantino-like energy. It is, of course, a political and polemical film but it’s raucous tone soon tires despite the fact that Lee has made a film that’s certainly relevant to now, as it was to then.
From Ukraine came Donbass, in which Sergei Loznitsa turns the awful war on the Ukrainian border into a bloody farce. But his film is also a fully fledged tragedy as sleazy politicians, brutal Russian soldiers and a population taunted by the awful nature of their lives mix the film’s 13 segments into a whirl of devastation and hopelessness. Some amazing moments. What to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book? Well, he was awarded a special prize and, being Godard, probably deserved it. But the film, with its images and texts sometimes contradicting each other, has brilliant and infinitely tiring moments as if the great man deliberately wants to provoke the watcher with the slightest of smiles before kicking him or her up the backside.
Lastly, Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built is more or less a bleak black comedy, in which Matt Dillon bravely plays a serial killer. Some of its scenes have its press audience screaming with anger, or possibly disgust. I won’t describe them since I don’t want to end on a sour note. But though von Trier is still an exceptional director, his return to Cannes after several years of persona non grata was soon forgotten amidst the Festival’s more simple blood and thunder. You can’t defeat Cannes, even if you’d like to sometimes. It is still the greatest film jamboree there is and a good measure of the year’s quality, even without American stars hogging the limelight.
Cannes 2018 was strange affair, punctuated by controversy (the refusal to screen Netflix films unless they were guaranteed cinema exhibition, and the march up the red carpet by 80 or so women, lead by Kate Blanchett, head of this year’s jury, to complain that Cannes had far too few women film-makers this year or any other). Add to that a less than vintage programme and fewer people braving the expense of a Cannes visit, and you have a Festival which looks a bit uneasier in its skin than for some time past. Even so it would be foolish not to admit that the Festival, 71 this year, is attempting to adapt to changing times and likely in the end to do so successfully.
Not many expected Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifting to win the Palme D’0r. But this Japanese director, a regular at Cannes and one of the best film-makers in the world, surely deserved the honour, even if several other competitors would have deserved it too. Shoplifting is about a group of petty criminals living on the loose in Tokyo who adopt a little orphan girl and teach her their shoplifting trade. The film’s chief point is that this posse of outcasts live happier, more fulfilled lives than those from whom they steal—an unusual moral that the director, through the sheer humanity and skill of his film-making, makes thoroughly convincing.
The Grand Prix, nominally the second prize, went to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the fictionalised story of how a black American managed to filter his way past the KKK to provide the American Government with vital ammunition. It is one of this director’s most commercial thrillers which displays a fast pace, and a sense of humour as well as anger. Chiefly, though, it parallels the Trump era pretty precisely, which is presumably why the jury liked it so much.
There are plenty of big names to come, but the first week of the Cannes Festival was rather less than uplifting. This, after all, is the most prestigious film festival in the world and one expects a lot. But the grand opener, Everyone Knows from the Iranian director of the marvellous The Separation was distinctly underwhelming. Not a bad film but nothing to write home about either. Asghar Farhadi’s second film outside Iran, after the France set The Past, has Javier Bardem as the owner of a local vineyard and Penelope Cruz as his childhood friend arriving in Argentina from Spain to celebrate the marriage of Cruz’s sister in the village where they grew up. The post-ceremony party is in full swing when one of Cruz’s two children is reported missing. It looks like she has been kidnapped, and the rest of the film discusses why and by whom.
We none of us know until the last moment as the entire family is gutted by the awful news, and Farhadi mixes love, class and money into the mix as virtual hysteria pervades. There is a precedent of a similar situation from the past which ended badly which is why no one calls the police. Bardem and Cruz do their best within this melange of family disturbance but Farhadi, in mixing a love story and a thriller takes several false steps. A bit of mystery is a good thing but too much of it wearies. The film lacks the precision and the ambition of Farhadi’s earlier work. It is certainly watchable but not much more than that.
The competition is full of films running at well over two hours length and not really sustaining the minutage. Which is why it was such a relief to see Pawel Pawlikowski 89-minute Cold War, an intimate love story of two people, shot in black and white and set in the ruined Poland of 1946 but progressing to Paris, Yugoslavia and Berlin. He (Tomasz Kot) is a conductor and pianist and she is the singer of the group of musicians trying to make their way through folk song and eventually jazz at a time when everyone is struggling immediately after the war. The love story is impressive enough, thanks largely to the playing of Joanna Kulig as the singer, but it is the post-war mise en scene, elevated by some superb cinematography from Lukasz Zal, that’s the true star of the film. Pawlikowski, UK based since his teens, is clearly a director of unerring taste, as his previous Ida showed us, and also one who understands that what we see is as important as what we hear when conviction really matters. Dedicated to his parents, the film is the present favourite for the Palme D’Or, or at least a major prize from the jury headed by Cate Blanchett.
I would guess that the second favourite is The Ukrainian Donbass, directed by Cannes regular Sergei Loznitsa. A fictionalised version of a true story, it tells the sad and often horrifying tale of the conflict between the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian-backed separatists which has virtually destroyed all sense of decency from either side. The film is really a chain of interconnected scenes illustrating the appalling struggle. There are several extraordinary scenes in which a suspect soldier is tied to a lamp post and reviled physically and mentally by an enraged crowd and another when a grotesque wedding is acted out between two hideously simple locals. The plot takes place largely within the Eastern region of the title, an area bordering Russia that’s the frontline between the Government and the insurgents backed by Putin’s Russia. Loznitsa hardly needs to take sides. He just states what is happening. It makes your average horror-thriller look like a vicarage tea party.
There may be no British film in the competition at the Cannes Festival this year, but at least one of the hot stories of the crowded annual jamboree concerns Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, whose The Man who killed Don Quixote, at least 20 years in the making, has been given the last slot in the Festival’s programme. And thereby hangs a tale and a half. Paulo Branco, one of the epic’s producers, was furious when the Festival announced its plans, since he mounted a court case claiming he was wrongly cut out as producer in breach of an agreement he and Gilliam signed two years ago that awarded Branco the rights to the film. If he’d won the case the Festival would have had to find another closing night film. But he didn’t and so the film goes ahead.
It has been a monster trial for Gilliam over so many years, both financially and artistically. Already one movie has been made as a documentary on the trials and tribulations of the production and there’s a second one on the way. Gilliam has had to halt or abandon production several times owing to lack of finances, bad weather on set or other accidents, like his veteran French leading man being unable to get on a horse because of a bad bladder infection. Johnny Depp was attached at one point but had to decline because of other engagements.
Throughout all this Gilliam, the original cheeky chappie who fundamentally lets nothing get him down, was totally determined to make the film and eventually succeeded in doing so. But at some cost to his health, since he recently lost the sight of one eye briefly after a minor stroke and only a few days ago had another one. He is however determined to support the film at Cannes which has described Branco as “a self-important troublemaker” and Gilliam as a genius who has to be supported.
It is altogether an extraordinary story of triumph over adversity but, if you look at his successes and failures you understand that he never ceases to take risks, financially and otherwise. Brazil, Time Bandits and The Fisher King were among his successes and the Adventures of Baron Munchhausen a considerable flop. All in all, however, this very Anglicised American director has been a cherishable member of the British scene ever since has provided the brilliant animated sections of the Monty Python series. “Not dead yet” was his last message to Cannes,”I’m coming to the Festival for sure”!
10 years ago I was unexpectedly outed as Christine Keeler’s “favourite public school lover”. I remember Roger Alton, then of The Times but formerly the opening bat in the Guardian cricket team I captained, pleading with me to tell all in lubricious detail. I decided not to. But my fling with poor Christine was a strange affair, as was my meeting with Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who tragically killed himself after the press had falsely accused him of procuring girls, including Christine, for immoral purposes. I remember marching into Gerry Fay’s office with others to object to a first edition leader which intimated that Ward’s death was a good thing. It was deleted just in time.
What do I remember about Christine? That she was a lovely girl who, for some strange reason, thought I was a “proper gentleman” compared with most of the bounders who she had taken-up with when in fact I was as naive as she was but delighted she liked me. I remember trying to take her out to restaurants and being told by her that she couldn’t possibly go in because everyone would recognise her. And when I persuaded her inside she was furious if nobody actually did.” I’m a footnote to history, you know”, she said. But a sad one really because the last years of her life were lived on social security, ignored by every one of those members of the establishment who would have loved to get their hands on her when she was young.
I must say I was flattered by her attention and at one time tried to get her the post of secretary to the arts editor on The Guardian. Unfortunately, she eventually took fright and didn’t turn up for the interview. Gosh, you should’ve seen the excitement at the Guardian the day she was due to come in. So perhaps she was right. What lot of wankers! she said afterwards. And that was that.
How do I remember her? As a rather nice, decidedly innocent girl whom men made famous but who only wanted a decent life with someone, she could trust. She was not a prostitute or a good time girl like Mandy Rice-Davies, who wouldn’t take shit from anyone without answering back in kind. Nor had she Mandy’s talent. I saw Mandy in Ibsen’s Ghosts once and she was the star of the show. Christine was only the star of the show because of her looks which, until she lost them, were truly remarkable. What she saw in little me I will never know.But I am grateful for the experience. “Derek”, she said once, “You are a very nice man.Too good for me. The only one who doesn’t care a damn who I am.” Oh yes, I did!
Seriously, though, I thought to whole bloody business was so very typical of the way the establishment spears the innocent while being guilty of all sorts of crimes. Talk about hypocrisy! These bastards, or their children, would do the same today. Nothing much has changed. They murdered Ward in my opinion and would have got rid of Christine if they could have. Mandy, who admitted to me that she had acted as a call girl on occasion, told me that 80 percent of the men she slept with only wanted a cuddle. What about a quick strangling? I’d help.
• Christine Margaret Keeler (22 February 1942 – 4 December 2017)
I was once taken to a cricket match in Bombay by Shashi Kapoor, the great Bollywood star, who has died aged 79 after a long spell of illness. As his open-topped car sped from his house to the ground, whenever it was forced to stop at the frequent traffic lights, a crowd of admirers would gather, clapping, shouting and begging for autographs. He signed willingly, sometimes holding up the traffic, and when we reached our seats at the cricket ground, he spent almost the entire day signing again. I asked him why he was so generous with his time, particularly as he was really interested in the match. “Look, Derek,” he said. “I owe everything to these people. It’s my way of saying thank you.” He was not only the most handsome leading man in Bollywood, but also the most charming and modest.
Shashi Kapoor appeared in Heat And Dust, 1983
The British will remember him best in Merchant Ivory films such as The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Heat and Dust (1983), and for these he willingly accepted far less money than for the Bollywood movies that made his name. Trained in the theatre, he took his acting seriously and often laughed at the fact that he had to make three or four Bollywood epics at a time and had no idea as he went from set to set what he was supposed to be doing, and who he was supposed to be doing it with, let alone what he was pretending to sing, as the playback singers did the real business behind the scenes. “It’s all a game,” he told me, “and I am very fortunate to be asked to play it. But sometimes it’s a bit too much.”
In fact, he appeared in some of the best Bollywood films of his era, opposite the greatest stars in the business. His looks carried him through all the absurdities of the song-and-dance numbers. Although the list of his hits at the box office is endless, he made a good many bad movies too. As a producer for his own company from the late 1970s to the early 90s, he had less success than he had been used to, despite critically well-received productions such as 36 Chowringee Lane (1981), which starred his wife, Jennifer Kendal.
Shashi was a member of the famous Kapoor family, who dominated the Bollywood scene for decades, particularly through the influence of Raj Kapoor, Shashi’s elder brother. Raj made hit films such as Boot Polish (1954), nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Shree 420, the highest grossing Indian film of 1955. If Raj was considered the Clark Gable of India, Shashi was his country’s Robert Redford.
Born in Kolkata, son of Ramsarni Devi and Prithviraj Kapoor, Shashi was already on the stage as a child in the 40s, acting for his father’s repertory company Prithvi Theatres, as his brothers Raj and Shammi had done before him. The movies soon followed, among them Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951), both directed by Raj, and considered classics now. Shashi then became assistant director for Sunil Dutt, who was making Post Box 999 (1958).
Shashi Kapoor appeared in Shakespeare Wallah, 1965
Success followed as a leading man in more than 60 Hindi films, in which he appeared with the most notable female stars of the time. One of his favourite leading ladies was Nanda, with whom he made eight films and whom he regarded as his mentor. Others he worked with included Raakhee, Sharmila Tagore, Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini and Parveen Babi. He also made a dozen films with Amitabh Bachchan and appeared with almost all the male stars of the period. He was well paid for his work, but somehow managed to lose much of his fortune, perhaps through sheer generosity and the fact that he was not a good businessman.
He became increasingly bored with commercial Hindi movies and charged into films such as Bombay Talkie (1970), Siddhartha (1972), Junoon (1978), New Delhi Times (1986) and In Custody (1994) with some relief. The 70s and early 80s were a good period for more challenging independent films and Shashi took full advantage of the freedom they gave him.
Though the cinema made him, theatre was his first love, and he did everything he could to encourage the stage in Bombay (now Mumbai), with money and help. Shashi’s work in establishing the Prithvi theatre in the city, in memory of his father, was outstanding. Jennifer helped supervise and run the theatre for many years.
She was the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal, who had toured the Shakespeareana acting troupe around India, and upon whom Shakespeare Wallah was loosely based. Both Jennifer and her sister, Felicity, acted with Shakespeareana in the 50s. Jennifer and Shashi met in Kolkata in 1956 while each was appearing with their father’s company and they married two years later. It was thought that Shashi never fully recovered from the shock of Jennifer’s death in 1984 from cancer. He died from complications of long-standing heart and liver problems and while in hospital insisted on meeting and attempting to help other patients.
He is survived by their three children, Kunal, Karan and Sanjana.
• Shashi Kapoor (Balbir Prithviraj Kapoor), actor and producer, born 18 March 1938; died 4 December 2017