Sunday, May 23, 2021

Cannes 1984: Pitching and Rolling Aboard The Pirate

The Pirate was booed at Cannes that year. But not just a little. According to witnesses, the 2,000 strong audience jeered and mocked the film from start to finish, during both screenings.

Pitching and Rolling Aboard The Pirate

Observing the festival in real-time, the meaning of the hisses that greeted The Pirate was clear: Jacques Doillon’s film was the mandatory scapegoat that “professional critics” treat themselves to each year at Cannes. 

“If we never like anything, we’ll never move on!,” shouts Jane Birkin at the press conference for The Pirate. Moved, the audience applauds. It applauds all the more since it wants to redeem itself from those (“the others”) who, the day before, behaved very badly during the first press screening of the film, and who keep spreading the shitty annual Croisette rumour: that Doillon’s film is very bad. As if, every year, a film had to be denounced, if possible from the French selection. The negative word of mouth about The Pirate replicates the rumour against The Moon in the Gutter last year, even if these two films have little in common and if Doillon’s is a much better film than Beineix’s. 

A year ago, at the award ceremony (with Orson Welles), it was the dinner jacket socialites that thought it clever to boo Bresson and Tarkovsky. This year, it’s the press that heckled the film: jeers, vulgar taunts, people leaving the theatre five minutes into the film. Not the entire press of course, but a large part of those whose work (we no longer dare say “passion”) is to report on films. In other words, things are not getting any better. 

People can think whatever they want about The Pirate, but first, they do need to think. Otherwise, the “whatever they want” quickly becomes nonsensical. One only had to watch, side by side from left to right, Olivier Lorsac (producer, ex-advertiser), Andrew Birkin (Jane’s English brother), Laure Marsac (enfant terrible on the shoot), Jane Birkin (the heart of the film and Doillon’s wife), Maruschka Detmers (star), Philippe Léotard (anxious comic), Jacques Doillon (deus ex machina) and Bruno Nuytten (photography) to understand that this family was united by a very strong feeling of having, individually and together, leapt into the void by boarding The Pirate ship; that it wasn’t for show; and that their difficulties in talking about it (fearing the worst) are matched only by the difficulty of one being critical about them without hitting low. 

As if the mere appearance of the small troupe of this film, narcissistic and terrorised, was a smack in the face of the media humdrum of the big troupe, isolated in a bunker, that is the festival crowd. As if, we dare say, it was suddenly somewhat intolerable to hear a (still) young filmmaker say that his film probably came from “a sort of (personal) necessity”.

What am I talking about? An auteur, of course. Take it or leave it, of course, but don’t ostracise him from the festival. Or we will end up thinking (and I’m not far from this) that this is the definition of an auteur. 

Au auteur who doesn’t (quite) fit the image that the media have of him for the simple reason that this image doesn’t exist yet. The repressed controversy surrounding “auteurs today” became meaningful again with the screening of The Pirate and in the way, from the film to the press conference, it was obviously one single experience that was unfolding. We are not responsible for who we are, but for how we are, said even Léotard, paraphrasing Sartre. 

Ten or so years ago, when The Big Feast or The Mother and the Whore were showcasing France at the festival, the controversy was about the films’ content, which was provocative. The form merely followed. Today, we would struggle to find even one festival-goer (press or not) who attaches any importance to what the films are saying. So the films have no recourse other than mannerist stylisation or rancid academism. And the media have no difficulties in inflating an “event” that is already full of hot air. 

Cannes 1984 will end soon. At the start of the festival, we said that Cannes is the capital city of an imaginary but very real country, ours, the Cinema. It’s still true. But this capital city sometimes adopts the pathetic rituals of a school, with its star students, its dunces, its scapegoats and its stubborn examiners. The victory of the media-Cannes in the past few years is a double-edged sword. The festival grows in stature, but in return, it produces what may be called “films made for Cannes”, conceived (even by the best) with a precise idea, consciously or subconsciously, of what needs to be avoided to make a film worthy of the “Palme” (a dosage of water and wine, nothing else). In this obstacle race, top students always win over dunces, and a young auteur (especially if he has only a good cinephilic reputation going for him) must expect to be turned down temporarily.

The only solace for Doillon is to remember that Bresson, at eighty years of age, was still heckled for L’Argent last year; and that everything, in a way, is following the Cannes order of things. 

First published in Libération on 23 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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