American Optimism Takes on French Realism at Cannes

In Cannes, beauty manifests itself in two distinct ways. One is the organic beauty -- bold colors of the bougainvillea against a backdrop of sparking blue water of the crescent beaches lining the Cote d'Azur. The other is manufactured -- polished, transient, and fueled by ambition.

Once a simple fishing village, Cannes has been home -- for 59 years -- to an event that demands more attention, press and pomp than any other event in the world, except perhaps the Olympics and the World Cup, which occur only every four years.

During the 11 days of the Cannes Film Festival, 200,000 people -- 9,000 of whom are journalists -- crowd the city while cruising along the Croisette, repeatedly making their way back and forth between the Hotel Martinez and the Palais des Festivals et des Congres.

Are There Any Original Ideas Anymore?

Cannes serves an important function within the world of film, bestowing the prestigious Palme d'Or award to a work recognized as brilliant. At its core, however, the festival exists to promote, sell, coerce, entice, and impress.

I saw two films this weekend, seemingly different in every way except for one. Each was a human story with characters having to confront their own reality, cognizant of the choices they had made and the paths that led them to their current state of existence, however fulfilling or disappointing it may be.

This led me to wonder, does original thought exist anymore?

Perhaps the answer is yes and no. While the essence of a story can be singular and un-original, the approach to which the story is told can be unique.

On Saturday night, I attended the featured in-competition film -- a French film called "Selon Charlie (Charlie Says)." I successfully made the daunting journey of winding my way along a seemingly endless stretch of red carpet, blinded by flash photography, yet propelled forward to the beat of loud pulsating music that drowned out the clipped noises of the million photographs taken.

France's front-runner, "Selon Charlie" buzzed with Gallic pride and hype. Director Nicole Garcia pulled together a renowned French cast including Jean-Pierre Bacri, Vincent Lindon, Patrick Pineau, and Arnaud Valois, to name a few. The film rolled along for two and a half hours, delving into the lives of six characters, each of whom found themselves to have lost their spirits.

The town's mayor occupied himself with mundane tasks while affording himself a slight abuse of power; a scientist returned to his hometown to speak at a conference regarding his discovery of a pre-historic man; a petty thief botched a crime while on parole; a school teacher failed to live up to his intellectual potentials because of a somewhat unexplained past; a young tennis player broke under the demands and pressure of his sport; and a father of an 11-year-old boy has an affair while forcing his son to cover his lies.

The characters are intertwined, but we never get to know them well enough to actually care about whether they solve their dilemma. Had there been fewer plot lines, there might have been a better opportunity to invest one's self in the characters' lives and their potential outcomes. However, there was neither a sense of hope nor optimism, leaving the audience with the heaviness of a dead end. There was simply the resolution and acceptance that such is the way, and man does not have the power to change his life -- he can only try to escape.

Enter 'Kettle of Fish'

The second screening I attended this weekend was "Kettle of Fish," produced by Michael Mailer and Marc Lazard and starring Matthew Modine and Gina Gershon. There was little fanfare as I strolled down the Rue d'Antibes on my way to the small theater on Sunday morning, a sunny sobering contrast to the previous night.

Written and directed by Claudia Myers -- who was at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time -- "Kettle of Fish" is a romantic comedy that immediately engages the audience when one of the main characters Mel (played by Modine) asks aloud, "How did my life get to be this way?"

Rather than resign himself to accepting a dismal life, Mel attempts to remedy his situation. He falls in love, albeit with the wrong person, but he allows himself to venture outside of the immediate world that metaphorically imprisoned him. He sublets his apartment; he gets a new job. Not all of his moves were wise, as he realizes, but through his errors and mishaps, he comes to terms that his pre-conceived notion of love kept him from experiencing the real thing.

The other main characters were equally disenchanted with their lives. The concept of loneliness and fulfillment are at the core of "Kettle of Fish's" plot, not unlike the characters in "Selon Charlie." However, there was the feeling of optimism, the American can-do attitude versus French melodramatic realism.

There were many clever moments throughout the movie -- a foray into satire, at times even the absurd. If I had to point out a flaw, I would suggest that Ginger (played by Gershon) be an American, as opposed to a Brit. The contrast between her character and Modine's are sufficient and do not need to be further highlighted.

Believing in the Story

It is doubtful that "Kettle of Fish" will be Myers' best work, but it is a young film with notions that resonate among a wide audience regardless of background or socio-economic situations. It captures a very realistic slice of life among 30-somethings who seek fulfillment and well-roundedness. There is an optimism that drew me in.

I spoke to Michael Mailer, son of Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer, after the screening. He chose to produce "Kettle of Fish" because he believed in the story and also enjoyed working with Myers, who has directed shorts but never a full-length film. Mailer was thoughtful and insightful, and impressed upon me a real passion for storytelling using film as a medium. He believes it has become much harder to reach as broad an audience through prose, especially given the ever evolving multimedia world of today.

I will look forward to this team's future productions.

Au revoir to Cannes. Until next year!