The Venice Film Festival goes from great to horrible for these moviemakers. 2,233 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As they were packing, Philippe Renoir called to inform the filmmakers that they would finally be meeting their financier Errivo Monsour on the Red Carpet at the Venice Film Festival. After the screening, they would be swept off to his yacht for a lavish fête. Philippe dropped several A-list names before hanging up.
Cynthia spent the next three days in Beverly Hills trying to find the perfect dress. Harlan bought that Ralph Lauren tuxedo he’d promised himself.
Venice was not the picture postcard they’d envisioned. The late August weather was the equivalent of being locked inside a sauna that hadn’t been cleaned in months. The canals gave off the stench of rotting vegetables marinating in a dull brown broth. The streets were clogged with sweaty overbearing tourists. But at least the hotel didn’t disappoint. It was elegantly gaudy and the employees bowed and scraped every time the couple walked past. And room service was delightful.
The filmmakers had flown in a few days early to screen their passion project Monumental for distributors; several seemed genuinely interested afterwards but were loathe to commit until they saw the feature with an audience. The one firm offer they did receive, a direct to cable deal, they turned down flat. Monsour’s representative, Philippe, expressed his annoyance, he being of the bird-in-the-hand school. Harlan said he felt confident a distributor would bite after the premiere. But it was Cynthia who had to point out a contractual obligation he’d forgotte: in the agreements, both leading ladies had inserted a provision demanding a theatrical release. So no streaming services or pay channels were possible.
Two days before the premiere, as they were emerging from the screening of an overlong Hungarian war epic, Harlan and Cynthia were approached by a trade journalist. Instead of talking about their film, he asked their reaction to reports that Monsour had been arrested in Corfu that morning.
Blindsided, Cynthia was about to utter “No comment,” when Harlan blurted out “Arrested? For what?”
“Illegal arms dealing, that’s what,” the journalist replied as if they were merely being coy. “There’ve been rumors for years.”
“Not another word,” Cynthia whispered to Harlan, and yanked him away.
Their pal Nadine had just arrived in Venice and was waiting for them in the hotel lobby, her arms opened wide to greet their m. The bubbly grin fell from her face as they marched through the doors looking like parents faced with the prospect of “having the talk” with their children that they’re divorcing.
“Bastard wasn’t even selling to the good guys,” Harlan groused as he clicked off the BBC News telecast.
“Yes, because that would have made this so much more palatable,” Cynthia scoffed.
They were about to have a row when the phone rang. It was Philippe, ensuring them that the arrest was “a minor misunderstanding,” and that the film would not be affected and that Monsour still hoped to make the premiere.
“Just what I’ve always wanted: to walk the Red Carpet on the arm of an illegal arms merchant,” Cynthia complained.
On the night of the premiere, subdued and sticky from the heat, Harlan and Cynthia, with Nadine in tow, donned their partygoing masks. Philippe had instructed the filmmakers to say only one sentence to reporters, “We are very proud of this film and are as shocked as everyone else by the news.”
Monsour was in the process of being extradited to London and his attorneys were fighting it every step of the way. Since his arrest, the rather hearty looking multimillionaire had begun to complain of chest pains and other crippling ailments, suffering from, as one British tabloid claimed, “Guilty-As-Sin Influenza.”
Though their hearts were heavy and their heads cloudy as the film unspooled, Cynthia and Harlan were buoyed by the audience’s reaction. The sustained applause at the end put a genuine smile on their faces for the first time since Monsour’s arrest. The couple prayed that the afterglow would sustain them through the media gauntlet on the way out.
They never made it through the exit. Instead, they were collared by two “continental ops,” as Harlan would later refer to the officials, and escorted to a cavernous back room. The two prosecutorial types, an Italian and a Brit who introduced themselves as Lancellotti and Pace, said Philippe Renoir had been taken into custody during the screening. Cynthia’s gulp was audible.
After two hours of questioning, the officials seemed satisfied that Harlan and Cynthia had never met Monsour, were unaware of his illegal business activities, and that every penny of the film’s budget had been dispensed by Philippe and his assistants. The filmmakers were visibly upset when Lancellotti suggested they might have to forfeit their salaries. When Harlan asked why, the Italian replied with a wry chuckle, “Because, signore, it is all dirty money.”
Further, Monumental, their pride and joy, was being seized as an asset. “Well, if you knew this already, why the charade of a screening?” Cynthia asked.
Pace explained that, until the movie was shown to an audience, no one could be sure that it was a viable asset. “People will be interested in buying your film,” he reported, “which means that not only would Monsour be able to launder his arms money successfully, but probably make a profit on it as well. As you can appreciate, that would be bad form.”
“So it would have been better if my movie stunk?” Harlan asked.
“Right,” Pace replied.
As Lancellotti watched the last glimmer of joy fade from the filmmakers’ eyes, he tried to sound reassuring. “I have seen the film and you should be most proud of your accomplishment. Remember, what they say, ‘Vita brevis, ars longa.’”
“That’s small consolation considering our film will probably deteriorate in a vault somewhere,” Cynthia rued.
“Terribly sorry,” Pace responded. “But consider yourselves fortunate that you will at least be spared the indignity of a trial and a prison sentence.”
In the land of thank-heavens-for-small-favors, the couple would have to content themselves with merely being unwitting dupes in an international money laundering scheme.
“See you gals later,” Harlan announced as he tore off his black bow tie and crammed it into the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket. “I’m going down to the hotel bar and get snookered.”
Normally, his wife would have issued a word of caution, but Cynthia was too traumatized. It was up to their friend, Nadine, to intervene. “Harlan, at least put something in your stomach before you start drinking.”
Harlan nodded faintly as he struggled with the weighty hotel room door, opening it just enough to slip through.
Cynthia merely sighed and pulled a pillow to her chest. She was lying on the bed fully dressed in a flowing steel grey Zac Posen, wondering if Saks would take it back or she would have to spend the next two years paying for it. Paying for it? From what? She had minimal income at the moment. Every last penny of the couple’s savings had gone into the finishing costs on Monumental, the film that was supposed to change their lives.
And, tonight it had. But not in the way they’d imagined.
“Can I get you anything?” Nadine asked.
“Strychnine and soda. And don’t be stingy, baby,” she replied.
“Well, you can’t be feeling all that bad if you can pop out a line like that,” Nadine chuckled.
“Would you sleep here tonight?” Cynthia said without even a trace of whine.
“What about Harlan?”
“He can stay on the couch. I can’t share a bed with anyone who’s needier than I am. Not tonight, anyhow. And I don’t want to be alone.”
“Do you have an extra pair of PJs?”
“Wouldn’t it be more decadent to sleep in our designer gowns?”
The idea seemed to revive her. She sat up, formed an imaginary pencil between her fingers and touched it against her tongue. She began writing on an invisible pad.
“Overhead shot of two elegantly coifed women languorously draped across hand-embroidered Pratesi sheets in the Italian provincial bedroom of a five-star Venetian hotel. A gentle zephyr billows the sheer curtains through the open French windows as they drift peacefully to sleep. Fade to the next morning. The same shot, only one of the women is lying in a pool of blood. The other woman emerges from sleep with a start and seeing her dead bedmate, screams, and continues to scream as the camera drifts out the window to the Venetian canals, her cries drowned out by the throngs of noisy tourists below.”
“Oh, Cynthia, there is no one like you.” Nadine said with a smirk.
“Only because no one else auditioned for the part.”
“That’s not true. You’re just not thinking straight at the moment. Understandably. Now, get some rest. I’m right here beside you,” Nadine said, grabbing Cynthia’s writing hand and holding it as she shut her eyes.
Cynthia’s eyes remained wide open, however, staring up at the rococo ceiling. Cherubs peered down at her, wide-eyed, lips apart as if about to impart a mischievous secret. Perhaps the little imps were trying to tell her how, despite all the best intentions, everything had gone so terribly wrong.
Harlan boarded the plane back to L.A. with a patch over his right eye. On the night of the “grand fiasco,” he’d left the hotel bar well-oiled and stumbled through the streets, getting hopelessly lost. In his compromised state, he had the crazy impulse to swim naked in the canals. In addition to swallowing lungfuls of rancid water, he came down with a nasty case of conjunctivitis.
After sedating her husband for the long flight home, Cynthia noticed two distributors seated across from her. Both had expressed interest in Monumental but now pretended they’d never even met her. She was grateful when they deplaned at JFK.
It took weeks back in their own bed for their normal sleep patterns to return. Pieces were picked up, alternate plans made, and the couple eventually made it through dinners with L.A. friends by deflecting sympathetic comments with bad jokes like Harlan’s, “I directed my first movie and all I have to show for it is this lousy Kalashnikov.”
Their marriage managed to survive the ordeal with only a few surface cracks at first. But, perhaps inevitably, the cracks started to leak water, and a year later they agreed to a trial separation that gradually took on an air of permanence.
“It’s like we’ve come unstuck,” Cynthia admitted to Nadine, “and I don’t know how to glue us back together again.”
“Do you still love each other?” Nadine ventured.
“Probably, but I’m not sure. I suggested getting pregnant. But Harlan didn’t want to be one of those couples who tries to patch up their marriage by having a child. I couldn’t argue with that.”
Cynthia lucked into a Hulu sword-and-sorcery series which allowed her to swing a mace and rip her bodice on a regular basis. Harlan, uncomfortable seeing his estranged wife having pretend sex with beefy men and even a couple of women, moved to New York City, mainly because his eye had never healed completely which had compromised his L.A. driving. He returned to theater directing and received accolades for an Off-Broadway project which he later took on tour.
After multiple legal delays, Philippe Renoir and several other Monsour associates were tried and sentenced for up to ten years. Monsour was spared prison time because of health issues and confined to house arrest in Corfu. At least that was the cover story. In truth, he had been spared because he hadn’t fingered other high-end money-launderers or drug and arms smugglers, only sacrificing his underlings as compensation. He also made a generous donation to Sudanese orphans since the case against him had included selling the very weapons that helped turn those children into orphans. The irony of his magnanimity went unremarked.
Cynthia and Harlan were sickened by the outcome. Their discomfort, however, was somewhat allayed when a court declared that Monumental was now free and clear. As part of his agreement, most of Monsour’s offshore assets were seized, including the infamous super yacht. So the financier no longer owned the film and was not entitled to any monies that might accrue from it. The rights to Monumental were sold for eighty-five thousand dollars (the price of storing it in the interim) to one of the distributors who had ignored Cynthia on the plane ride home from Venice. As is customary in the biz, she and Harlan forgave the slight and got into bed with him, and eventually with each other.
An unexpected benefit to Monumental’s bumpy road was that the media fell all over itself to cover the film’s release lavishing this “buried treasure” as they called it with the kind of attention any independent filmmakers would sell their birthrights to receive. Critics climbed aboard the “me too” bus and tried to out-praise their peers. It helped that the timing coincided with increased scrutiny over Hollywood’s lack of solid female-driven vehicles.
“The movie’s not that good,” Harlan puzzled as he read one after another over-the-top review.
“Just enjoy it, babe,” Cynthia advised.
Harlan smiled, kissed her forehead and said, “Onward.” The newly reunited couple were already receiving offers for a new script, an original this time. The highest bid was from an associate of Monsour’s who had recently been released from prison on a technicality. They decided to accept their current distributor’s lesser offer.