A screenwriter is frustrated at the Cannes Film Festival – until he stops caring. 3,160 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Bender arrived at the Cannes Film Festival well armed. He had his screenplay and an appointment with a Moroccan film financier who would also give him a place to stay. He was in good health and had plenty of money for food and drink. It was now in Bender’s hands to find a way to fuck it up.
His screenplay, which he liked to think of as homage to the French New Wave of Truffaut and Godard, was about Henry, a successful American commercial director in Paris. Henry’s wife, a beautiful model, leaves him. Disconsolate, Henry takes flute lessons in an attempt to get over her. He falls in love with his flute teacher while his wife falls back in love with him. Bender knew if he could get a bankable actor to play the lead, he could find other financiers. But it was a small film, he would be a first time director and actors were wary. Hence, the desirability of independent financing which Bender fucked up.
Where did this come from, Bender’s policy of walking out of waiting rooms? What was the purpose, what was the result? Pride? Was it because from his seat on the Ikea couch of the office suite Bender could see the Moroccan talking on the phone, and Bender knew he could see him and yet didn’t acknowledge his presence? Not a wave, not even a raised hand, no sorry, give me a minute. Bender was growing angrier with each current and past issue of Variety International, Paris-Match and World Cinema.
Was this any way to treat an artist? No. A screenwriter? Maybe. One who needed three million dollars to make a romantic comedy in Paris? Absolutely. Hence, Bender, a long-standing member in the church of passive aggression, said to himself, I will give this prick ten more minutes and then I will leave. Bender didn’t stop to consider that he wasn’t in a store where one could get five million Euros and, if he didn’t like the way he was being treated, he could go to another one. Was this repressed anger at his mother for her dizzy nature that left him stranded after school with forgotten promises and unwashed spoons? All this revealed in fist-clenching sessions on Dr. Gladstein’s leather couch in the converted garage in Westwood.
But the past that illuminates the present doesn’t change the past. Bender should have waited him out like a Russian peasant, cap twisted past recognition. Thank you, Patron, for seeing me. Of course I understand that you were on the phone with the emperors of Warner’s, the caliphs of CAA, the mullahs of the Morris office and the entertainment division of City National Bank. As you know, I am humbly asking permission to make a little film behind the hovel you so kindly let me inhabit. If your majesty would grant me five million rubles, I can do it. Of course you may have my firstborn, rights to my wife and my cow in gratitude. Oh, thank you, may I kiss your hands? It’s what his grandfather would have done. Why couldn’t he?
Bender allowed himself one more pleading glance at the receptionist who, wanting no part of this, returned a minimal shrug. The ten minutes flew; he added another five, then got up and left. No one pursued him down the hallway. No one ran after him begging forgiveness, clutching his sleeves, and pleading for him to return. As he stepped into the elevator, it occurred to him that they might have thought he had gone to the bathroom.
Outside on the Croisette he strolled aimlessly past the crowded outdoor cafes and restaurants filled with women and men making and celebrating, all determined to keep Bender out of the movie business. Better to turn left, cross the street, take off his shoes, place them neatly on the sand and walk into the Mediterranean like Dirk Bogarde in Death In Venice.
Instead, Bender squirmed his way through outside tables and made his way to the bar of La Tourette. A vodka and a cheese sandwich calmed him. He would find someone else to finance the film. The Moroccan financier who ignored him was probably a control freak who would find a way to fire him, take the film away, or convert it into a bloodfest with Jason Statham. Better to get out now while Bender could. He would hike to the station, collect his luggage, take the next train back to Nice, pick up his car and continue his European vacation driving and eating in starred restaurants, his appetite enhanced by the joints he carried in his carved-out Michelin Guide.
On his way out of the café he saw a familiar face at an outdoor table. It was Gary Norman, an agent based in London, holding court with a cast of interesting looking people. Gary waved and Bender was cheered as he made his way to the table. But Gary rose and met him a few feet away signaling that he would not be invited to join them.
They chatted briefly. Gary was in Cannes for fun and staying at a villa owned by one of his clients, a director.
“By now, it’s a tradition.” Gary said. “And I assume you are here on business.”
Bender agreed and mentioned an upcoming meeting with a Moroccan financier. Sorry, he had to run.
Back on the Croisette, Bender no longer felt the depths of the Mediterranean beckoning but he still wanted out of Cannes.
At the train station, Bender could see his grey Mandarina Duck suitcase and the matching briefcase in a thick iron mesh cage. A sign said the office would reopen the following morning at six. He was stuck in Cannes until then.
No matter. Once he booked a hotel room he could buy toiletries, stroll the Croisette, have a drink, enjoy a first class dinner, retire early, pick up his luggage and get the fuck out of Le Dodge. La Dodge?
He started with the best, The Carlton. A desk clerk politely informed him that there were no rooms available. “Perhaps The Grand?” Bender asked.
The clerk said, “Of course, Monsieur, you may try.” Even with the accented English the subtext was clear: Are you out of your fucking mind? A hotel room in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival?
Bender thanked him and found the gift shop where he purchased a toothbrush and paste. Things were looking up.
Two hours later they weren’t. He had visited six hotels, at four of them desk clerks were kind enough to accept fresh twenties and call compatriots in other hotels which made ten, and the verdict was the same: there were no available rooms in Cannes available.
Bender wondered if he should repair to the red light district and hire a prostitute for the night. It would be his last resort.
The evening film premiere would be starting soon and limousines carrying stars and producers were inching their way east to the Palais where crowds of fans and photographers were waiting alongside the Red Carpet. Bender saw Gary Norman coming towards him, dressed in a dinner jacket.
“We meet again.” Gary said.
“I wonder if I could ask a favor.” Bender said. “My travel agent screwed up and didn’t book a room for me tonight. Any possibility I could crash at your pal’s house tonight? A couch? Anything.”
Gary didn’t pause.
“I couldn’t ask him. He’s a client and agents don’t ask clients for favors. It’s the other way around. I’d suggest a hotel. Sorry, have to run, I’m meeting people. Say hello to the family.”
Bender wondered if it wasn’t too late to return to the Moroccan financier and tell him he had gotten lost trying to find the men’s room.
The restaurant was almost empty. Bender was shown to a prize table facing the sea. He looked at his watch. It was eight o’clock, and he only had to kill ten more hours before he could claim his luggage and get a train back to Nice. Make this a long, slow dinner he thought.
The waiter brought him a menu and a wine list. By nature, Bender was a speedy eater. He once got a writing job on a television show because the producer who took him to lunch said Bender ate even faster than he did.
He forced himself to read the menu three times, narrowing his choices as he sipped a Kir, gave his order to the captain and discussed wine recommendations with the sommelier. He looked at his watch: it was eight-thirty, nine and a half hours to go, and he hadn’t even eaten. Things were looking up. He started with a pissaladiere, a cold artichoke salad, then scallops in a basil sauce, and, what the hell, cherries jubilee. The whole meal, including two espressos, cookies and a slowly delivered check, only cost an hour.
He walked along the Croisette past the Palais du Cinema. Crews in blue jumpsuits and Day-Glo vests were busy sweeping up debris and stacking barriers for the next day’s screening.
Giant posters advertising films he didn’t want to see or wished he had written stared down at him. He felt small, out of the business, and he listed his enemies, starting as always with Henry Kissinger, followed by Neil Navitz, Gary Norman, Pius XII, and then himself.
He was tired; he wanted a bath, a bed, and an Ambien. Cheer up, he thought, snap out of it, buckle down, you just ate a hundred Euro meal, your clothes are by Giorgio Armani, your wallet is thick. You are rich and homeless. Bender walked across the street and found a bench. In front of him was the black sea, with only the sound of tiny waves slapping the sand, and behind him crap music, beeping horns, and raspy motorbikes. Could he go horizontal on the bench and sleep? Did French cops slap heels with their billy clubs like their American brothers and say, “Move on, buddy?” What was French for move on? The beach with his jacket for a pillow? The melody of Under The Boardwalk floated in momentarily but it was quickly erased by the image of a gang of tattooed French thugs mugging him. Better to resume his search for a hotel room, or bribe a bellhop for a couch in the lobby and sneak a snooze. He didn’t have the energy. He took out his toothbrush and retrieved bits of his two-star meal. Somewhere between a thread of scallop and a spit of cherry skin it came to him. There was a place where he could spend the night, legitimately, comfortably, amusingly, and it was just down the street, the Casino Barriere les Princes.
Bender handed over his passport to a man in a tuxedo and filled out the registration card. He was admitted to the Grande Salle where baccarat, roulette and blackjack games were in progress under huge chandeliers. The women wore gowns, the men suits and everyone was beautiful. Bender wandered the room and saw producers and actors. Earlier that evening they walked up the Red Carpet into the theatre and found a back exit; they had no interest in a film that wasn’t theirs. The room was a sea of perfect hair and makeup, gold cigarette lighters, scurrying waiters dispensing cocktails and overexposed breasts. Bender was in heaven. He could gamble all night. Screw Ambien. Was that James Bond at the baccarat table? Shaken or stirred, he couldn’t remember.
Bender dipped in and out of a blackjack game, not bothering to sit, losing one, winning three, moving to the roulette table where he bet black and even, and for once enjoyed the lethargy of the roulette wheel as the ball plunked from slot to slot until it finally came to a halt in twenty-six black.
As he pocketed his chips,, Bender could see people drifting in from the screening. He checked his watch; it was ten thirty, tempus fugit.
At the bar Bender sipped his martini, his back to the mirror for a better view of the room. The woman on his left who turned out to be Abby, spoke first.
“Does it show?”
The woman on his right who turned out to be Martha, said, “I guessed Russian. Boy, was I wrong.”
“I couldn’t be Russian?” Bender said.
“You look Russian,” said Martha who was at least six feet tall and stood up straight.
Abby was about five-five. “So are you from Hollywood?”
“Do you have a film here?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.”
“Why don’t we get a table and you can tell me about it,” Bender said for he was tired of looking up at Martha.
They were both stunning in their own ways. Although Bender was at first partial to Martha’s towering red haired beauty, Abby had the livelier personality. She touched, prodded, pinched and caressed Bender on every sentence. She had a thin scar across her cheek and said it was the result of a duel in Heidelberg and when she laughed at something he said, Bender melted. Martha was analytical and knew the inside scoop on every film in the festival. She wore a low cut black dress with a silver jacket and the promise of her breasts made Bender wonder if he should hand her his screenplay. Then again, Abby had a raspy voice that seemed to jump octaves in a sexy way. Could he be falling in love with two women at the same time?
They told him they were documentary producers from Washington D.C. and had come to Cannes with a film they’d made about a family of oyster fishermen on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. There was interest from Arte and Canal Plus.
“Do you like oysters?” Abby said.
“Let’s order some.”
“Absolutely. And they are on me. Shall we have them with champagne?”
They ordered three dozen Belons and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck. After the oysters they had quiet time on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean with a killer joint Abby had stashed in her pocket. Back in the casino Bender danced with Abby and then Martha who said it would be more fun if the three of them danced together. They gambled, but modestly, and when Martha hit three blackjacks in a row doubling down on each and said, “I quit. I have enough for a new refrigerator.”
They returned to the dance floor and when they tired of dancing they ordered another bottle of champagne and passed the joint under the table to each other but no one seemed to care.
Abby said, “Marth’,, I’m really high and when I get high I get honest. I think we should tell him the truth.”
Martha leaned over and bunked her forehead against Bender’s. She smelled of Prell and her breasts were resting on his arm and he was losing interest in Abby.
“Okay, I’ll tell him the truth.”
“You can’t handle the fucking truth.” Bender said.
“There is no ‘fucking’ in the speech.”
“There isn’t? Abby?”
Abby said, “She’s right. No fucking.”
“Okay, no fucking,” Martha said. “Too bad, you’re kinda cute.”
“You’re drunk, Marth. I’ll tell him. There is no film. We are not documentary producers.”
Bender said, “What are you?”
“We are lawyers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
“Martha’s in Market Services and I’m Foreign Agricultural. We both wanted to go the Cannes Film Festival. You know, screenings, premieres, receptions, and not be tourists on the other side of the ropes.”
Bender saw Gary Norman enter. He was alone. At the sight of Bender and the two gorgeous women, he waved and started towards them. Bender smiled, waved back and gave him the finger.
“I’m sorry, you were saying.”
Martha said, “We created a fake production company, made up a fictional film, did all the paperwork and got accredited as participants in the Cannes Film Festival. Want to see our passes?”
“But didn’t they want to see the film?”
“Sure. It’s a real tragedy that it got held up in customs. It should be here any day.”
“Tomorrow’s the last day of the festival.”
“How did you pull this off?”
Martha said, “It was easy. We are lawyers, you know.”
Bender told them his story. How he had walked out of the meeting because he was kept waiting and how he couldn’t get his luggage out of storage. Martha agreed that it was self-destructive but Abby said it could work out for the best. Bender said that it did; he had met them.
Bender looked over at the bar and saw Gary Norman sitting alone. He looked unhappy. “Well, what now, adorable ones?” Bender said.
“Too bad we checked out. We could have gone back to our hotel room,” Martha said.
“Yes, too bad,” echoed Bender.
He checked his watch, four more hours to go.
“We could sightsee,” Abby said.
The women had rented an Alfa Romeo convertible. With the top down Bender stretched out in the narrow back seat, entirely comfortable, stoned, and stared straight up at the sky. Martha drove as steady as she was tall.
They headed north for Moulins de Mougins with the idea of a sunrise breakfast.
Along the way Abby asked Bender if he would like to come with them to Monte Carlo.
“You have a car in the Grand Prix?”
“Don’t be silly. But we are covering the race for our boss who is thinking of making a movie about it.”
“Who’s your boss?”
“You getting full access to the race?”
We’d have to get my luggage first.”
Bender sat up. They were higher now, in the mountains above the sea. The lights of Cannes dimmed as dawn spread across the Mediterranean. Bender felt, as always, happy in the company of wonderful women. Cannes, Monte Carlo, where would these two beautiful con artists take him next? Rome and the Vatican, accredited emissaries of Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles with a letter granting them permission to see the Sistine Chapel after hours, and perhaps the Papal apartments with a private tour by Il Papa himself.
It was tempting and Bender regretted it as he watched them speed off from the rail station without him.
In August Martha quit the Department of Agriculture and came to L.A. to find a job. Bender invited her to stay with him.
When she left his house in Benedict Canyon a year later, she was on a fast track to become a VP of Production at Sony. In the last two months of living with Bender she started seeing an English director who would direct Mandrake The Magician. She was also pregnant with the director’s child but this information she withheld from Bender. He had no luck when he called the Department of Agriculture for Abby. He ran into Martha at an Academy screening during Oscar season. She told him Abby was ill and had moved back to Michigan to be with her parents.
“Whatever happened to your French screenplay?”
Bender told her he had a new producer. She said it wasn’t for Sony but if he had anything else he should call.
Later it occurred to Bender in the middle of the night, as he was missing Martha’s soft length, that he was merely another part of the calculus of forged documents, cribbed resumes, beauty and charm. Cannes, Monte Carlo, Benedict Canyon, and Sony.