The lead actress of the opening night picture at the Cannes Film Festival is murdered – and a Hollywood film critic is the prime suspect. Part One. 3,744 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
The French National Police gendarmes hurried Ryan Cromwell through reception, which resembled a cheap hotel lobby, and down a narrow brown hallway. They propelled him into an interrogation room only slightly larger than a bread box and painted gas chamber green. A man in his mid-fifties, wearing a dull black suit befitting a homicide detective, studied a copy of the day’s Hollywood Times. The page was opened to Ryan Cromwell’s review of The Ice Princess. The cop looked directly at Ryan. Then looked down at the paper. Then back up at Ryan.
”We have some questions for you, Monsieur Cromwell,” the detective said in a monotone and perfect English.
”Please, tell me what’s going on?” Ryan’s voice cracked, and his mouth was dry. “Why was I dragged down here?”
“My name is Inspector Thiereaux. I wish to talk about your film critique. In your criticism of The Ice Princess film, you wrote, ‘The script is so bad that one hopes that the film’s signature blue scarf would be stuffed down Kristen Bjorge’s throat so we wouldn’t have to hear her utter another word of dialogue.’”
”What do you mean, ‘stuffed down her throat’? I never wrote that.”
“It is right here.” The policeman shoved the review across the table. Ryan grabbed it and scanned the opening paragraph. He had begun with a discussion about lead actress Kristen’s screen presence. None of that was there.
“These are not my words,” Ryan said.
“I do not understand.”
“Sometimes the editors cut or rewrite my reviews. This is appalling. Because it blatantly misrepresents my thoughts. I would never take such a vulgar and aggressive tone. It’s so Internet.”
“You say you don’t know why you were brought here?” the inspector asked. ”The actress Kristen Bjorge was murdered last night. We put the time around 18:00 hours.”
”That’s horrible. But I don’t see how it involves me.”
”You wrote that she should have the scarf stuffed down her throat.”
“Are you trying to tell me that she was killed by having the scarf stuffed down her throat?”
“That is the way she was killed, yes,” the detective said. “We found the scarf just like you said to do in your film critique.”
“I told you, someone changed my review. Besides, you don’t think I would be so dumb as to write in a review about stuffing something down an actress’ throat and then actually killing her that way?”
“Where were you in the evening?”
”I walked around to get readjusted to being back in Cannes.”
Ryan realized that he was working his way into a hole and had better shut up. He was in a foreign country, where the French were not known for doing anything in a logical or sensible way, where Jean Valjean was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread and the Man In The Iron Mask was locked away. Did they still use the guillotine?
“Is there anyone you were with between the time of 18:00 and 20:00 hours?” the detective asked.
“I just walked around the Monoprix to buy snacks. Then I went to Le Petit Splendid for a couple of beers. But it was pretty crowded and I didn’t see anyone I knew. Then I went to the Carlton Hotel.”
“The Carlton? For what?”
“I had to use the restroom,” Ryan said. “The beer and all.”
“You went to the Carlton to use the toilette?”
“Yes, it’s the only spot along the Croisette where there is a good public bathroom on the first floor. I can prove I was there. It’s got a marble sink and real towels. They even pipe in classical music. I remember they were playing Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major when I was there. You can check it out.”
“So you admit you were at the Carlton.”
“Well, yes, I was at the Carlton.”
“Kristen Bjorge was killed at the Carlton and you were in the hotel at the same time,” the Inspector told Ryan, then made a scribble and left the interrogation room.
Ryan gasped. He turned on his smart-phone and saw a picture of himself on the Internet under the headline, “Hollywood Critic Suspected In Murder Of Actress At Cannes.”
He was now officially at the center of a media maelstrom.
Just then, Barlowe appeared. “I’ve been watching TV in the waiting room, and the first thing I see on the small screen is you. So the police brought you in for questioning in connection with Kirsten’s murder?”
“What can I tell you? I lead an exciting life,” Ryan grimaced. “Obviously, I didn’t do it. This craziness has gotten way out of control.”
“You’re a celeb, man,” Barlowe said, patting him on the back. “You’ve got to cash in on this. Work it.”
“I’m just trying to chill right now,” Ryan said.
“You’re such a Luddite.”
“Hey,” Barlowe continued, “there’s a big boat on fire in the bay. Probably a tribute to Kristen Bjorge. How’s that for a publicist’s dream of a film promotion? A Viking burial is a high honor. Whoever has the rights to those porn videos starring that dead actress is going to clean up.” Barlowe was trying to lighten Ryan’s dark mood.
The circus was in town: CNN, Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, BBC – every three-lettered monster of the media universe had assaulted Cannes with their cables, wires, satellites, and well-coiffed correspondents. The number of broadcast and cable and satellite reporters had exploded since the murder of Kristen Bjorge proved a ratings windfall.
The Los Angeles Times wrote that an animated R-rated series on Kristen’s life was in the pipeline at Spike TV. The Washington Post linked the film’s producer, Gunnar Severeid, to “suspicious” ties with Mideast entrepreneurs. Le Figaro concentrated on two terrorist groups in Brussels suspected of the murder. Le Monde editorialized that the festival had taken on too much Hollywood film noir. And the trades covered the killing with a box office angle.
The press room at the Palais consisted of 322 bright red seats. Less than 36 hours after the death of Kristen Bjorge, the interview room was packed with more than 400 journalists.
The auditorium bristled with technicians staking their digital-electronic turf. Down in front, TV camera crews and news people maneuvered for position. Tempers were flaring when Lt. Roger Savin entered the Palais press room from behind the stage.
The uniformed Frenchman was the Liaison du Presse of the Cannes Police Department. He had not slept since the murder and was under immense pressure. Lt. Savin couldn’t pinpoint who his bosses were in this investigation: his superiors within the department, or the Cannes city fathers, or the festival organizers, or even the Hollywood movie moguls. His day job throughout the rest of the year was to handle public relations for the Picasso Museum in Antibes. The main gallery had been robbed of valuable artworks which fortunately were recovered quickly. The press never got wind of it, and he’d impressed the police with his crisis management skills. So they hired him to be their mouthpiece during the Cannes Film Festival.
“I cannot start the press conference until you all stand back,” Lt. Savin said to the hyperactive crowd of journalists pushing forward. “If you stand back, you can see much better. If you’re too close, you won’t get the correct angles for the coverage you need.”
The police panel’s participants entered: Jason Pinelli, the director of The Ice Princess, with de rigueur facial stubble and several tattoos; Gunnar Severeid, the tall silver-haired producer of the picture; Honoree Humbert, one of the associate directors of the festival; the Coroner from Nice; and two Gendarmes. Lt. Savin perched at the center of the table and tapped on his microphone. After a solemn introduction of the panelists, he addressed the unruly throng.
“You have the official press statement. We will now take questions.”
“We understand you have a suspect,” someone screamed.
“At the present time, we have interviewed a number of people. No one has been charged, and no one is being held.” Lt. Savin replied.
“What about the Hollywood Times film critic?” someone yelled.
“We questioned him but have no evidence, Yet,” Savin said. "But there are suspicious circumstances. We’ve established he was in the Carlton Hotel at the same time she was killed. And his review of the movie contains information only the murderer would know. I can tell you we suspect someone who knew her well or cared a great deal about her. The particulars we cannot divulge.”
"So the rumors are true that they were sleeping together until he saw her poor quality porn videos?"
The room was erupting into a shouting match. Lt. Savin watched it and became silent. Finally, the assembled pack quieted down. Lt. Savin proceeded. He picked a familiar face in the middle of the auditorium, one whose photo the Beverly Hills publicity woman had given him. It was the senior film reporter from The New York Times (“Good to make them feel involved,” the publicist had advised him.)
“What about ISIS terrorists?” the New York Post scribe called out.
“There is no evidence that it was a political crime. All evidence points to a passion crime. Anyone reporting otherwise is contributing to hysteria.”
The next barrage of questions focused on mundane matters. When was Kirsten’s body discovered? (Around 6:30 that evening.) By whom? (Gunnar Severeid, when he came to pick her up.) What were the funeral arrangements? (Her ashes would be sent back to Oslo.) When did they expect a break in the case? (It could be any minute or days or weeks.)
Lt. Savin next called on a Frenchman from Cahiers du Cinema. The journalist never formulated a specific question but launched into an oration that referenced Roman Polanski, the French New Wave and Claude Chabrol. Lt. Savin bit his lip and nodded thoughtfully. He had found his rhythm. He followed up by next selecting an MTV reporter.
“How much did the party cost for The Ice Princess? And, in light of the murder, is Beyoncé still going to appear for her film promo?”
“We have not heard back from her people,” Lt. Savin squelched a perverse grin. “We will take one more question and then we must adjourn. The room will be used by a Peruvian film in five minutes.”
The reporter from Le Monde barked at Gunnar Severeid. “Are you a neo-Nazi? Your father was a Quisling during WWII.” The towering Scandinavian withered the questioner with an icy stare. But before Severeid could respond, the festival’s associate director wrenched away the microphone. “You must remember that this festival has always been anti-fascist,” he emphasized. “The Cannes Film Festival was begun in 1938 as an opposition to the Venice Film Festival, which was a propaganda tool of Benito Mussolini at the time.”
Police 1. Press 0. Or so Lt. Savin calculated. He anticipated many of the preposterous headlines already: “Nazis. Drugs. Kinky Sex.”
“You look awful,” Bernie said.
“Getting ambushed at a party and then interrogated by the police is not the way I like to start out a festival,” Ryan complained, knowing he had become the sorry straight man in this news farce. “This wouldn’t have happened if someone hadn’t butchered my review.”
Bernie patted him on the shoulder and then sat down at the white modular desk in the residential apartment that served as the Hollywood Times office. Bernie was the executive editor. He had once been an end-of-bench guy on Syracuse University’s basketball team and his gangling height was a drawback in Cannes. He was sore from squeezing his long legs into tiny French furniture.
“We’re all behind you here,” Bernie assured. “So what about the cops? Do you think your interrogation went okay?”
“I’m not sure. I couldn’t read the main guy who was questioning me,” Ryan answered. “He was so literal. It took me a while to convince him that somebody butchered my copy to say that Kristen Bjorge should have had a scarf stuffed down her throat.”
“I’ve already talked to the editors about messing with your copy,” Bernie reassured him.
“I can’t believe we’ve got someone who doesn’t know anything about movies editing my review of the opening night film. He distorted the writing. He made me sound imbecilic and vile.”
Ryan tried to contain himself. He knew Bernie was the man in the middle. The trade was a transitional mess now, not as reliable or bold as when the seventh wife of the original owner ran it. The Hollywood Times was covering Cannes with virtually a skeleton crew compared to its competitors. Ryan had learned from a friend in accounting that the publisher Warren W. Woolsey had a multimillion-dollar incentive bonus with the new parent company if he kept costs below a certain level for five years. That meant the higher paid experienced reporters were being replaced by recent college grads. The studios and the stars could bully rookie reporters.
Ryan stopped complaining and grew quiet. Since being dragged into the police station, he knew his attitude toward everything at the Cannes Film Festival had soured. He noticed his mailbox was overflowing. Ryan found a note from the day before imploring him to get Kristen Bjorge’s autograph. Guess it was too late to honor that request now. Ryan flung a copy of today’s Hollywood Times toward the wastebasket with such vehemence that Bernie stopped editing.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Bernie asked. “We’ve got Jane down at the police station now. This is a really big story, you know.”
“I can give you an exclusive interview any time you want.”
“We don’t want you quoted on anything.”
“I was joking,” Ryan said. Bernie never got Ryan’s dry humor.
“Knocking off this actress puts a whole new spin on the opening-night and thrusts the film into another realm,” Bernie noted.
“So her death was a good career move?” Ryan deadpanned.
Ryan turned away. He was in no shape to carry on this kind of conversation any longer, and feared he might say something offensive to his editor who was on his side after all. Ryan had re-read Kristen Bjorge’s bio and wondered how much of it was true. Like most for newcomers, it didn’t say much except that she had won several provincial beauty contests and studied acting in Oslo at someplace called Der Institut som Gjovik. According to The Ice Princess press kit, Kristen Bjorge had been discovered at a 7-Eleven during the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer by a segment director for ESPN, Jason Pinelli – the same “hot new” feature film helmer who had punched Ryan the night before.
Bernie wouldn’t shut up. “The rumor is that every studio large and small is interested in purchasing and distributing The Ice Princess because of the murder. And I hear that Liam Neeson may play the homicide detective when the make a movie about the murder since he’s filmed in France before. But it’s the middle of the night back in L.A. so we can’t call anyone to confirm. Damn, Cannes sucks. I hate everything about it. Not just the time zone but the screwed-up electricity and the bad Wi-Fi.”
Senior reporter Jane Jaffe entered the makeshift Hollywood Times office. She was five feet tall and intense and fashioned herself after fellow lesbian Rachel Maddow. “I see they let you out,” she said dismissively as she walked past Ryan, who was too distracted to respond to such an annoying kid sister kind of taunt.
Jane sneered as she delivered the afternoon news. “Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s flacks want to bump up their fashion line promotion to ‘the murder window.’ Al Sharpton is delivering a speech at the Carlton Pier tonight despite the fact that the murder lacks an exploitable racial angle. Clearly, even more than the usual publicity parasites are showing up in Cannes to use the film festival and the murder as a backdrop for their self-promotion.”
Just then, a tall red-haired man in large black-rimmed sunglasses entered. “You Ryan Cromwell? I’ve got something for you.”
He handed Ryan a large envelope. “Your publisher, Mr. Woolsey, said I should talk to you.”
“You’ve got to walk with me then,” Ryan said. “I’m late for a screening.”
They left the hotel. The red-haired man led Ryan to a small wheeled wagon that was designed as a stage. Seven cats perched on it. They wore elaborate and colorful Elizabethan costumes. Scarlet letters proclaimed: “The Globe Theatre.” The man handed Ryan a business card that read, “Howard Finerman: Feline Amusements.”
“My cats do Shakespeare,” the impresario said.
“This is remarkable, but it’s not for me,” Ryan said slowly and carefully since he was talking to a loon. “I review films.”
“Yes, but your Mr. Woolsey said you were highly educated and would appreciate this.”
“Sorry, I’be got to get that screening. I’ve got your card.”
Ryan hurried down the walkway and checked his festival book for a mid-afternoon movie to review before the Competition press screening at 7:30. Screen-and-shoot was the way he operated at the festival. He liked putting it in sports jargon because covering Cannes was a grueling game and a race against the clock.
Ryan did what he considered a “five” everyday. That is, some days he would see three movies and write two reviews; the next day he’d screen two movies and write three reviews. The trick was to keep on pace because Cannes was like a marathon and he just had to keep going. But already, with so many distrations, Ryan was behind. This was the fourth day and he still hadn’t filed one review. It took him focus to craft his critiques. Ryan felt an obligation to entertain as well as analyze and inform. He couldn’t bear to write boring reviews.
Ryan found an independent U.S. film that was showing at the Palais at 3:30. He sighed. Its casting sounded like the kind of quality production more worthy of Reality TV than a motion picture.
It had taken less than 48 hours for The Ice Princess to recover from Ryan’s scathing review. The movie’s buzz resounded along the Croisette from the Miramar to the Palais, and bloggers lent their insight from the Carlton to Katmandu.
Ryan, too, had become a household name. He’d been up the entire night fielding calls and emails and texts from friends, relatives, and people he hadn’t heard from in years. In its unique way, the Cannes Film Festival was like a giant Rorschach test. Each person had their own specific interest. Among his friends, the list was Shan (parties), James (celebrities), Kimmie (shopping), Stumpf (prices), Rich (topless beaches), Nicole (fashion). Alas, only his pal Barlowe was actually interested in the films. Ryan also had numerous voicemails from women he didn’t know but who had snagged his cell number.
Ryan slumped in a burgundy art deco chair in the lobby of the Hollywood Times apartment-slash-office building. None of the furniture was made for the human anatomy. If he’d been a conspiracy theorist, he would have thought the interior designer must be in collusion with a local chiropractic clinic. Ryan tried to get comfortable but was restless waiting for his trade’s damage control maven to arrive. Lauren Perrino was a hyperactive ditz, unendurable at any hour, much less 7 a.m. when Ryan had agreed to meet her. She had left a hysterical message on his cell the previous night, using the word “emergency” at least a dozen times. Like many successful people in her profession, she was OCD and ADHD and WTF.
Ryan sucked on a large coffee with cream, a “Cafe Americain” as the French called it. While he waited, he glanced up to see a young film publicist bolt out of the elevator. She was rail thin with long straight bottle-blond hair and carrot-colored skin. Ryan wondered what combo of nutrients or sun lamps accounted for that orange hue.
“Ryan, I’m Giselle from BGK. I’ve been reading all about you.”
“That I have a three-book deal with Knopf and am handsome?”
Ryan’s dry sense of humor had no effect on her.
“This murder has been such a headache for us all,” the publicist said. “We can hardly service any of our clients.” She sat down and punched at her iPad, then fondled Ryan’s arm. “I’m sorry about my director Jason Pinelli’s karate chop. He’s actually very cool.”
“Contrary to what people say who have worked with him.”
“This is his first big movie, and when he read your review…”
“Well, I hope he’s pacing himself. He’ll have a lot of critics to punch out, plus the people who pay money to see the film.”
“I left some stacks of hand-written invites by the door to your offices. Are you coming to our MTV party?”
“No, thanks. I get beaten up at your parties.”
“Great. See you there,” she said and hurried off.
Ryan glanced at the new day’s Page One of the Hollywood Times. There was a front-page editorial from the publisher, Warren W. Woolsey. The writing was always very solemn, but immeasurably insipid. Just then, appropriately, Woolsey’s minion appeared.
“You’re innocent, of course,” Lauren said.
“Certainly innocent of killing Kristen Bjorge,” Ryan answered. “But the police interrogation has not done a lot for my reputation.”
“Mr. Woolsey thinks it’s important that you keep a low profile on this murder and not do any media about it.”
“That’s what I thought he’d want. Besides, I’ve got too many films to review. As usual, I’m going up against a horde of critics from rival trades who’ve sent their A-teams.”
“This has been a real black mark on the paper,” she said as she scrolled through interview requests on her iPad. Lauren also pulled out a thick stack of letters on shiny stationery that glistened. Most had Asian and Cyrillic and Arab lettering guaranteed to make a crisis management expert xenophobic. “Look at these. Who knows what kind of creepy publications will convict you of the murder before you’re even charged. Trust noone, Ryan.”
“The world is full of creepy publications, not just those devoted to the movie business,” Ryan said. “TV newspeople are even worse.”
“Megyn Kelly’s people have been calling constantly to get you on her show. So has everyone else. But stay clear of them,” Lauren noted. “Hey, you don’t have a cigarette on you, do you? I quit two years ago, but the last 24-hours have got me craving Gauloises.”
“This festival has got everybody smoking again,” Ryan replied. He didn’t smoke, but now seemed a good time and place to start.