Amid a sea of Frenchman, with their more ancient gene pool and therefore more extravagantly baroque features, how nice to encounter the regular guy continence of not only an American but an honorary Baltimorean.
Indeed, the gent headed my way at the American Pavilion outside the Palais du Festivals at the 46th Annual Cannes Film Festival proved to be David Levy, who certainly qualifies for the honorary designation as it is he and he alone who leases and books the city's most ambitious art house, the venerable Charles.
Levy can't even remember how many Cannes he's attended; he started sometime in the mid-'70s, but the object, through the years, has always been the same.
"We come to see as many movies as possible," says Levy. "The value of Cannes is that you hope to see what films are available in the coming year. We stay away from the conventional commercial fare, which we'd never play anyway. But this is a great look at what's coming up in art or specialty films." Levy, traveling with his wife Seena, estimates he'll see 35 to 40 films in 10 of the festival's 14 days.
Even with that heroic bout of movie-going, selecting the pictures can be a daunting task at a festival where close to 120 movies are shown daily, a few in competition but the majority in the festival's "marche" or "marketplace" division, where exhibitors usually get free admittance upon purchase of a $300 exhibitor's badge.
"The trick," says Levy, "is to get here early, before the crowds get so out of hand. You want to listen to the buzz and find out what people are talking about. . . . You get a feeling for the films, and you can skip what you don't need to see and move on to what you have to see."
But, France being so French, after all, there are cases where the rules simply don't apply, and don't ask why, they just don't. Tickets must be obtained. In these cases, there are other tricks, such as cultivating contacts with the French Film Office in New York or with UNI, the French distribution office. That at least can get Levy into most of the films he wants to see, though he remembers with a chuckle being refused by a French security man at one screening and then entering five minutes later when the man went on break leaving the theater wide open.
Last year, Levy recalls only one film he saw at the festival really attracted him, and that was the Australian "Strictly Ballroom," which he ended up not exhibiting (it went to the Senator).
What films has he seen this year that might show up at the legendary rep house just north of the train station?
Levy liked a much-appreciated but forbidding Chinese film, "Farewell, My Concubine," by the director Chen Kaige. Then there is the new film by the director of "Riff-Raff," Ken Loach, the comic thriller "Raining Stones," about a decent working-class guy who finds himself owing money to the mob.
He also liked the new film by the Taviani brothers, "Fiorile," and the British thriller by Mike Leigh called "Naked." Two American films that pleased him were "Mi Vida Loca," by Allison Anders, who directed "Gas Food Lodging" and "Ruby in Paradise," by Victor Nunez, both of which were shown in the "Director's Fortnight" category.
The most talked about film he missed was "The Piano," by the New Zealand director Jane Campion; it was the hit of the festival's first week. But its distributor plans a mass-market release, inappropriate for a specialty house like the Charles.
"We won't get it anyway, so what difference does it make?" asks Levy.
Some of these films haven't even made an American distribution deal yet, so it could be some months before they reach the states, much less the Charles.
Meanwhile, Levy has his highest hopes for a film that was shown in the market screening last year: the tough Belgian feature "Man Bites Dog," about a TV documentary crew following a serial killer. It will probably open at the Charles in August.
"A lot of people in the audience will hate it, but it's a great film," says Levy.