As the last of the guests left the shores of Mediterranean Sea in the French Riviera, the Cannes Film Festival -- which ended on May 22 -- must have heaved a sigh of big, big relief. For, this year’s 69th edition of the festival screened under the mortal fear of terrorism -- the mock drill of a terror attack a fortnight before the festival rolled on May 11 adding to the scare, which was heightened after the March Brussels airport and metro station attack. France itself had been under siege and in a state of emergency following the terror killing of 11 people in the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015.
But strangely, the May 2015 Cannes Film Festival was not held under the kind of security blanket that this year’s 12-day event was. Sources say that the French intelligence had been tipped of a possible terror strike, and the festival -- with thousands of attendees, including about 4000 journalists -- seemed like a duck sitting to be struck.
During the first few days of the festival, it was more than apparent that it was under a heavy security blanket, and this writer did see snipers on the roof of the Palace, the festival’s main venue, and heavily armed troops patrolling the streets of Cannes. Against the grim looks of these uninformed men were women cops, sitting prettily on really tall horses, and believe it or not, they appeared so friendly, exchanging pleasantries with passersby, that the Cannes crowds seemed to forget all about terror.
In fact, a few days into the festival, the scanning and frisking at points of entry seemed so smooth and quick that most of us just breezed in and out of the auditoriums. But there were always those invisible eyes in the form of security cameras dotting just about every nook and corner of Cannes. One was even told that dozens of cops had disguised themselves as restaurant waiters, shopkeepers and even taxi-drivers and had fanned out to keep an eye in order to pick the faintest of signals that possible terrorists may be sending.
But then soon the topic of discussion veered away from terror to cinema. People were more interested and even exercised over Sean Penn’s disappointing The Last Face -- a love story played out by Spanish actor Javier Bardem and Hollywood star Charlize Theron against the backdrop of the 2003 genocidal wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Audiences, critics in particular, wondered whether The Last Face was a greater disaster than Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon or Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End Of The World. Maren Ade’s German work, Toni Erdmann, was another hot favourite of debate, and the story about a father’s concern over his workaholic daughter was a fine piece of work, though, that sadly did not make the cut with the George Miller jury.
The Last Face went understandably unsung, and the persistent booing -- a Cannes tradition -- at the press show must have rattled Mr Penn more than all the security phobia he must have felt. He went on the defensive to explain his movie, and seemed like a fallen angel at the press conference that followed the screening of The Last Face.
However, Penn must have taken solace from the fact that great masters before him had faced flak from the Cannes press. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure) was famously heckled, as was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which went on to win the Palme d’Or that year. Today, both works are considered all-time classics.
But then, there were other great films -- written about in these columns -- which made Cannes such a delight, as always. However, the city in the south of France which was once the playground of the rich and famous and also the meeting point of Prince Rainier and Hollywood star Grace Kelly, was certainly quieter this year. And it has been getting progressively quieter, and terror has not been the cause. Rather, steep hotel and food bills have been keeping people away from what is still the queen of all festivals. Why, Cannes, of course.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for 27 years.)