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My Struggle with the Cannes Film Festival

The screenwriter of Paul Schrader's "Dog Eat Dog" shares his experience premiering a film at Cannes this year.
Dog Eat Dog
I collapsed on my bed in the Hotel Cristal in Cannes, the curtains blowing in the breeze, just like in Roy Scheider’s room before he gets the piano wire in Marathon Man, and somehow managed to dimly fall asleep until the text function on my phone started quacking. It was the girl I love, in Los Angeles, texting to say, I missed my flight. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. What? Sorry? How can you even be sorry for missing a flight to Cannes—especially after I had added on a leg from Istanbul to Nice so she wouldn’t miss the opening-night parties? I was crushed. Heartbroken. We talked, but I knew it portended something bad. And I was especially pissed because this came a mere three and a half hours before my movie, Dog Eat Dog, was going to have its premiere in the Marriott hotel next to mine, as the closing-night selection of the Directors’ Fortnight. 
8:30 am—the sun is shining—the brilliance of the blue water of Nice is bouncing off the white buildings and mixing with the sun to create a Matisse-paper-cutout eruption of sheer pastel ecstasy. In our picture, Dog Eat Dog, Nicolas Cage, as a crook recently out of prison, has a monologue where he tells a girl he is cruising, “Would you like to go to Nice with me? You can’t imagine how blue that water is…when you’re flying in and the blue of that water is reflected on the wing of the airplane…” Nic’s character discovers that the girl he is pitching his romantic, Pépé le Moko dreams to is, in fact, a hooker, trying to zoom him for three hundred bucks—and yet, once the deal is done, he tries to keep going and get her to come with to Nice anyway. A real lovesick sap just keeps going in the face of reality, right? In any case, here is Dog—an adaptation of a crime novel by the longtime felon Eddie Bunker (of Straight Time and Animal Factory fame)—playing at 8:30 in the morning. Blood squibs, N-bombs, a little kid shot in the face: who thought this was early-morning-almond-croissant viewing?
And yet, strangely, the largely French audience for this A.M. screening (more press than not, I think) greeted the Godardian manoeuvres of Dog’s director, Paul Schrader, with an almost preposterous fondness. Outre charnel house gestures that in the U.S. would almost certainly be greeted by a hurricane of PC offendedness are received in Cannes with indulgent chuckles. What a perfect topsy-turvy relationship for the age of Trump: by making his most splattery, toxic, self-consciously wacky and absurdly punk-rock movie, Schrader assured that he would be received with the calmly respectful applause of an old master.
That night, some producers squeezed the core team of Dog Eat Dog into a strange underground space as prelude to our walking onstage for the nighttime premiere. In a room that looked like a disco for Serbian hookers of the nineties, Cage, Willem Dafoe, the producers and a few other unindentifiables were packed in as if we were about to address a joint session of Congress whilst wearing suicide vests. Somehow, a small, plump woman sneaked in and managed to get her hands on Cage either to give blessings, or, quite possibly, to receive them: “I have healing oils for you, Nicolas, healing oilssss!” It is a testament to Cage’s concentration, every bit as much as his compassion, that he greets the healing-oils woman—as well as all the other screwballs he meets—with absolute alacrity, no molecule of condescension or eye-rolling detectable at all. “You get a lotta screwballs, huh?” I ask him. “Yup,” he sighs. “I get every one of ‘em.”
We go upstairs, standing just outside the house of the theatre as a tall woman, a sort of older but insouciantly leggy Léa Seydoux, gives a speech on the stage where Dog is about to play, about income inequality, racism toward immigrants, the pitiful lowness of the minimum wage, and other Bernie Sanders-derivative memes. What is this Aux armes, citoyens! tirade doing at the top of our screening? No one seems to know, but a guffawing Schrader pulls Dafoe aside to whisper in his ear…well, I don’t know what, but I’m imagining a good prank to play on the Quinzaine’s earnest socialists. But this plot has no time to begin in earnest as in a blink, we are called to the stage. Suddenly, “Le scenariste…..Matchoo Wile-dayr!” 
I run up to the stage as rows and rows of French cinephiles turn back toward me, and cheer—the kind of long, uninterrupted yyyyyyyyeeeeeeeahhhh cheering one encounters at the beginning of the Super Bowl. 
As we all stand onstage, a master of ceremonies asks Schrader if he wants to say a few words. “Ahhhh—don’t take it too seriously!” he growls in his Nolte-like basso profundo. “Nic, you want to say a word?” When handed the mic, Nic prompts a ripple of Elvis-on-Ed-Sullivan screams and squeals and squicks. “Uhmezzybuggaaaa!” comes out of him—or something like that—and I turn to the actress next to me and say “What did he say?” and she has no idea. (Many hours later I learn it was “Merci beaucoup”—imagine Elvis saying that while slamming offstage in Vegas in 1970.) 
The picture plays; more French people like. At the end, the row where all the various makers are sitting is illumined, and the room gives us a long, sustained ovation, with a single Boooo! erupting—right on time, as if someone slipped him 50 Euros. 
After, we are stuffed in what appear to bulletproof SUVs, which lurch forward maybe, maybe a thousand feet, dumping us out on the beach—where the End of the Director’s Fortnight party is taking place. The Fortnight partiers seem to be having a marvelous time: one sees lots of long, lithe, Gisele-torso’d women boogying on the beach with champagne flutes in hand. Us Dog Eat Dog people, however, are stuffed into “the VIP room”—kind of an elongated version of the Box in Cool Hand Luke, cruelly overlooking the breezy, open-air beach. “What kinda VIP room is this?” Cage asks as we all collectively lose our will to be free, accept our helplessness and eat tiny puff pastries with steak slivers on them.
Later, I walk out of the whole mad end-of-fest brouhaha with Schrader and collide with Bilge Ebiri, the brilliant young film critic of the Village Voice, and a chap I know from college who somehow stalked me across Europe and found me at the exit door of this Quinzaine party—don’t ask, I kinda expected a Mark David Chapman gunshot to ring out, but it was all perfectly peaceable. We repair to the Grand Hotel where, somehow, no one is sitting outside, and Schrader goes off about his planned new revisions to his landmark book, “Transcendental Style: Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu.” 
Here, Schrader is glorious. The good reception of Dog Eat Dog has buoyed his spirits in a way I have never seen and he is consistently expansive and funny and generous with everyone he meets. This pleases me no end: it would seem the good reception of the picture has given him five more films’ worth of energy, minimum. 
Later, we are outside a posh hotel where Nicolas Winding Refn has gathered with his family. His stepfather, a lovely chap, introduces me to his father, a film editor. “Ah,” I say, “so you’re the reason he’s always ragging on Lars von Trier!” The stepfather chuckles and says, “No, that’s just his shtick.” “What’s that movie with Jean Gabin, that heist movie I was talking about?” Schrader asks. “Touchez-pas au grisbi,” I say. “What?” Refn asks. “It’s a movie about a Frisbee?” His mother offers me what must be some form of Danish pastry and I say okay. 
At the end, as I am about to zoom off to Zurich Airport, I get texts from the girl who missed the flight: she is packing up and moving out of my apartment—no real explanation yet why. Before I take my taxi out of town, I stop at a slightly creepy, babyish-themed sushi chain called Sugarfishy. Sitting outside, instantly recognizable, is a long, leafy, baleful, nicotine-stained Karl-Ove Knausgård. Sleepless, exhilarated, triumphant, utterly despairing, I walk up to him, shake his hand, and tell him how much his work meant to me, and—
“Can it,” he says. “The last thing anyone needs right now is more people writing about themselves.”

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