Daily Mail – I conquered Cannes in a van

cannes_in_a_van-Olivia_Grant

I am in the dining room of the legendary Carlton Hotel on the Cannes seafront enjoying dinner with Hollywood royalty: Leonardo DiCaprio, Uma Thurman and Robert De Niro.

We are all guests of Sean Penn – whose film The Tree of Life will go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or – to raise money for victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The tables are piled with freesias, the walls encrusted with gilt and the chandeliers sparkle almost as much as the borrowed jewellery.

It makes a peculiarly lavish backdrop to the heartfelt speech about suffering and need given by Sean, who has been living in a tent in Haiti to oversee the fruits of his massive fundraising efforts.

A host of waiters offer up plates of parmesan crisps and Iberico ham followed by a main course of rack of lamb with gnocchi. I am sure the pudding, a dark chocolate and pistachio mousse, would have been equally delicious but by the time it is served there’s no one left to enjoy it.

Because here’s one of the golden rules of the Cannes Film Festival: no one stays for dessert. If you are important you have another must-see-and-be-seen party to attend, one of several scheduled that night. If you are decorative, you don’t eat anything.

I am on Table 12. Naomi Campbell has just popped in (late) while a hedge fund manager pledges €50,000 in response to Leonardo’s exhortation to everyone to give ‘a big chunk of change’.

A walk down a red carpet with Naomi is being auctioned for charity while an American producer drawls to the film investor from Mumbai, ‘You know what you need? … a personal relationship with Uma.’

I must look somewhat in keeping with the surroundings, because I am handed, by one of my fellow guests, a business card.

It’s done under the table with a look which suggests she’s only got a few so she’s giving them out sparingly. It reads, ‘Personal Relations and Lifestyle Management’. ‘Lifestyle management?’ Who knew that there was a whole realm of personal mollycoddling that I had no idea even existed?

This really feels like Hollywood-sur-mer, and with tans this expensive, upper arms this starved and dresses exclusively floor-length, the whole event exudes a palpable sense of global glamour.

Glamorous: Ms Grant starred in Lark Rise to Candleford and Women in LoveGlamorous: Ms Grant starred in Lark Rise to Candleford and Women in Love

Later that night, jostling for space in front of the mirror in the lavish ladies, where supplies of Elnett hairspray are running dangerously low, a fabulous blonde Californian to my right rolls her eyes at me, ‘I know . . . it’s like prom every night!’

Well, it might be prom night, but is it the real Cannes? When singer Christina Aguilera was roundly ridiculed for asking: ‘Where is the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?’ was she making, albeit inadvertently, a serious point?

To find the real Cannes you have to descend from the Hollywood heights to the foothills of the film industry and search out the kind of people who might actually still stay for pudding – a generation of passionate film-makers who use every ounce of their transatlantic ingenuity and guile to get in, get on and eventually, they pray, get up.

For them, Cannes is a gruelling and often futile fortnight in which many hundreds of hopefuls must showcase their celluloid dreams in dingy rooms at random times to very sparse audiences.

Their festival experience, far from the glitz of the Carlton, is confined to ‘Short Film Corner’ at the ‘Marche du Film’ (Film Market).

Short Corner is widely accepted as being the bottom of the food-chain at the festival, and the fact that its inhabitants had so much time to speak to me told its own story. The serious industry players had stayed away.

As one independent film-maker told me: ‘They say the class system’s been abolished – but not in Cannes it hasn’t. We even have to pay for wi-fi. It’s the organisers’

way of saying try harder next year!’

Linger as I did in the lobby of the Hotel Martinez, one of the Festival’s A-list destinations, and you’ll see, in no particular order, Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey, rock diva Courtney Love and the Duchess of York getting over her Royal Wedding snub.

In Short Film corner, you’ll get an invite to a Greek 3-D film that resembles the dinosaur holograms at the Natural History Museum, or a peek at the Japanese offering Cellular Girlfriends, based on a ‘terrifying horror novel’ about a mobile ‘app’ which starts to kill its male users.

Cannes may be all about film but it is a divided world, both in terms of output and aspiration. One film-maker told me how the promoters of director Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Banderas and premiered here last week, had popped in to Short Corner to hand out invitations for the screening.

Those lucky enough to receive the golden tickets arrived early and queued for more than an hour to secure good seats. But as the doors opened, a crowd of VIPs and their entourages had bustled past and taken each and every place. As with the wi-fi, they’ll just have to try harder next year.

I was especially captivated by the idea behind one film submitted to Short Corner by maverick English director Andy Greenhouse. It’s shot as a dialogue between two fictional film-makers on his iPhone and comments on the fact that, with 2,000 film shorts accepted by the festival each year, it is unlikely that any distributor will see his offering, let alone buy it.

Andy suspects the short has cost him his annual accreditation, but it has not extinguished the knowing sense of fun which inspired him five years ago to join the Cannes subculture.

 

‘There’s also the chance of the van being towed away and impounded’

This runs in subversive parallel to the Festival’s more mainstream image of Lamborghinis parked outside the Martinez, the stars’ secret trysts at the Hotel Du Cap and the red carpet snaking towards the Theatre Lumiere.

For Andy’s is the mind behind the genius concept of Cannes In A Van, a yellow Ford Transit that is powered by vegetable oil and turns into a mobile cinema every night. For just a few euros he and his team (in black tie of course) will unroll a strip of Astroturf on the hallowed ground of La Croisette, set out their assortment of Ikea chairs and conduct an exclusive screen event, just for you.

You do risk being moved on by hovering gendarmes and there’s also the chance of the van being towed away and impounded  -  both fates have befallen previous customers. But the van has a growing cachet, its fame peaking when it was chosen to host the 2009 Cannes premiere of the globally successful eco film The Age Of Stupid, starring the late Pete Postlethwaite.

None of my work made the cut for the official screenings this year so I took Andy up on his offer of having a film screened at Cannes and chose a 15-minute short called Chasing Cotards, in which I star as Elizabeth, a dead wife who comes back to life.

It was made last year for London’s Imax theatre by a team who had worked on the Harry Potter movies. It might even, I thought, earn a nomination for Andy’s own Van d’Or awards.

As this was its official French premiere I dressed accordingly, tottering out of my hotel in a fabulous Dolce & Gabbana silk frock lavishly embroidered with flowers and towering Givenchy heels. I took a taxi to the Hotel Martinez and then actually hopped into the back of the van itself, arriving in time for the 5pm showing in what was to become my own private cinema.

And while my arrival (climbing out the back of the van!) generated only the odd double-take from the uninterested Gallic onlooker, it gave me immeasurable professional joy to sit in the warmth of a Riviera afternoon and watch my work unfold on screen.

It was the moment I felt closest to the true spirit of Cannes.

Of course, that’s not what the world wants to see. It wants to enjoy the annual spectacle of money and power colliding with art and combusting for a few hot, heady days on the French Riviera. It’s just that beyond that beats the magnificent heart of an unseen Cannes, where film-makers have to hope their talent will speak for them.

‘I tottered out of my hotel in a fabulous Dolce & Gabbana silk frock’

 

Either that, or they’ve got to get better at blagging, which is everyone’s prerogative here.

I met ‘Adam’, a recent film school graduate (I won’t give his real name for fear of reprisals) who wore black tie every night in the hope of mingling with moguls and stars. He was caught by a plainclothes policeman trying to shimmy between two layers of corrugated iron roof over the entrance to Sean and Brad’s Tree Of Life Party.

Perhaps I could do with some lessons myself. At one party I found myself sitting next to double Palme d’Or-winning Serbian director Emir Kusturica, who was president of one of this year’s judging panels. A Texan actress approached, asked me to move my chair out of her way and proceeded to tap him on the shoulder. She waded in with how his films had ‘stayed with her to this day’ and then sold her acting talents and her other powers as a ‘healer’.

When she left in triumph, ten minutes later, he had her business card and the web address of her showreel. Me? I had asked him to mind my bag while I went to the ladies.

However, to my credit I did leave before pudding. After Sean’s Carlton benefit I dived into my taxi and headed for an all-night party on a yacht. The ‘shoes off at the dock’ policy set an odd tone, but with all the tripping over of the hems and coloured socks on show, the teak dining room the size of a squash court seemed much less intimidating when I got on board.

I stayed on deck until the sun came up over La Croisette, eavesdropping while financiers promised cameos and girls promised phone numbers and all sentences seemed to start with the words: ‘You’ll never believe me but…’

It was the start of another day at the Cannes Festival, both the glamorous one that takes place on the red carpet, and its grittier cousin spooling through the Marche du Film and out the back of Cannes In A Van. The joyful sight made me think of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland when she said ‘I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…’

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