CANNES, France — The class envy raging through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” helps to explain why teenage readers, usually assigned the book in school, fall under its spell. So sad about that doomed love, the kids sigh. Money can’t buy you the best things in life. But those mad Prohibition-era parties sure seemed like the berries.
Class envy rages through the Cannes Film Festival too. So the “Gatsby” festivities Wednesday night made a grand kind of sense. At the opening ceremony, first came a tribute to this year’s main competition jury president, Steven Spielberg, complete with a 20-person chorale singing “Miss Celie’s Blues” from “The Color Purple.” This was followed by the rather coolly received screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” already open in the United States.
If Jay Gatsby was forever the upstart with his nose up against the glass of Old Money privilege, Cannes each year hosts thousands and thousands of would-be Gatsbys, lusting after the wealth and better-connected among them. The press is not above such class issues. In Cannes you sport one of several highly codified strata of badge, culminating in blanc. This means you get to scoot past all the blue and pink and red and yellow badges in all the other lines for the 8:30 a.m. screening, or the 7:30 p.m., or the midnight.
Generally the ushers save a couple of choice rows in the main festival theaters for le blanc. The ushers have been known to rebuke interlopers with a slight but threatening-sounding mistranslation: “No, monsieur. No. This is for white people only.” If the festival wasn’t such an obvious and stimulating multicultural melting pot, both on screen and off, there’d have been a riot over that linguistic hiccup years ago.
How did the tragicomic saga of Jay Gatsby, the great pretender and all-American striver, go over at Cannes? Prolonged standing ovations are common at the Cannes red-carpet premieres. This made the polite, if not timid, reception at the end of “Gatsby” all the more noticeable. The applause, more dribbly than thunderous, carried the distinct sound of a dressy, starry audience having had its fill, thanks, of Luhrmann’s visual frenzy.
In terms of haute couture, I did what I could to tone up the evening. The Cannes opening ceremony and dinner both require formal wear. I tried to get by with one of those not-quite-tuxedo outfits you see fellows like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling pulling off so nicely at the Oscars.
My standard black necktie never made it within 100 yards of the red carpet; I gained access to the theater after shelling out for a 15-euro bow tie provided by three pitying representatives of the festival and tied, hastily, in the pouring rain. I looked like a B-team caterer, late for a gig.
At the dinner, in a tent by the beach, the champagne and wine flowed like high-quality French champagne and wine. The sea bass? Fetching. The amuse bouche? Amusing. Droll, even. Jury president Spielberg mingled with “Gatsby” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan. Julianne Moore, representing Revlon, swanned by. The rest of us filled in the tables off in the corner.
And then came the social comeuppance. Sneaking into one of the Renault coupes provided for festival celebrities bound for the Warner Brothers “Gatsby” after-party, for which we did not have invitations, we shared the car with some Aussies and Germans. A few minutes later, deposited in front of the after-party venue on the other side of the Cannes harbor, it became clear that not a single one of us piling out like dressed-up Shriners at the circus actually had the right invitation. And none of us got in. And that was that. We ran back to the rental unit, in the rain, which was like a movie, come to think of it.
Thursday morning, following a screening of Francois Ozon’s sleek, rather shallow student-prostitute drama “Jeune et Jolie,” the new Sofia Coppola picture “The Bling Ring” opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar competition. It’s based on the true story of a group of teenage Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan wannabes who went on an extended spree of home burglaries of demi-celebrities living in the Hollywood Hills.
Like Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” which one suspects Luhrmann wanted to make in order to film Gatsby flinging all those expensive silk shirts at Daisy Buchanan, Coppola’s anecdotal account is packed with slavish, speed-shifting images of young people ogling shiny things (shoes, handbags) and indulging in chemically altered behavior and revolution-worthy party excess, in montage after montage. The young and the restless in “The Bling Ring” are played by, among others, Emma Watson of the “Harry Potter” franchise and a New Trier High School graduate-to-be named Katie Chang. (More tomorrow online regarding Chang’s big movie break.)
Old sport, I don't mind telling you: After “Gatsby” and “Bling,” I was ready for some good old-fashioned art-house images of grinding poverty. The festival has barely begun. More to come.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun