The Hollywood movie critic, no longer a murder suspect, tries to cover the Cannes Film Festival. 2,640 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
When the Hollywood New Times chief film reporter swooped out of the elevator, he nearly ran down the trade’s top film critic, Ryan Hackbert. “You haven’t returned any of my messages,” Stan Peck said as he came through the entrance to the Hotel Savoy. ”I’d like to get your side of the story.” Peck pulled out a digital recorder and flicked the switch.
“My side of the story is nothing,” Ryan answered. “The police asked me in for questioning and were satisfied with my answers. I know nothing about the murder.”
Ryan quickened his step. Peck clicked off the tape and said unhappily, “You know it’s ironic that you, a member of the press, aren’t talking to me, another member of the press.”
“I’m a very ironic guy. You can quote me on that.”
“Seriously, you were hauled in. You said in your review that she should be strangled.”
“I criticized the dialogue. A new editor mangled it with the scarf thing. The police understood,” Ryan answered.
"This murder of yours is screwing up my Cannes coverage," Peck continued. "I’ve got to go to this stupid press conference about it when I should be having breakfast with the TriCoast people. They’re going to announce a new slate." Peck paused to twist the knife a little deeper. "But a lot of people out there still think you’re guilty. That you killed that blond actress from The Ice Princess at the Carlton."
Despite the momentary high of jerking Peck around, Ryan was pissed at himself for giving Peck between-the-lines hints about the police interrogation. As much as Ryan hated to admitt, Peck reflected a fair amount of what would be movie industry opinion, as berserk as that could be. By doing nothing, Ryan was screwing up everyone’s Cannes Film Festival including his own. This was his eleventh time here. He needed to get back into his normal festival mode.
“That’s idiotic," Ryan complained.
“They think she invited you to her hotel because she thought you were a big Hollywood critic and could do her some good down the line,” he said “She had sex with you, and you got carried away and killed her,” Peck said.
“That’s beyond nuts.”
“I’ve heard it from a number of people. Alvy Berkowitz over at Miradel says it’s entirely plausible.”
“Alvy Berkowitz is a complete idiot when it comes to developing scenarios.”
“But Alvy knows the marketplace, and that is the jury,” Peck said. He bit into a croissant and then pushed it aside.
“I’m running late for a screening.” Ryan hurried away. He angled left across the Croisette. Ryan took deep breaths as he approached the Carlton Hotel. Four seconds in, pause, four seconds out. He sucked in the cool sea air, preparing for the critics’ Galois smoke in the screening line. Smoke and screen, his brain clicked with the word association. That’s what this festival was about: smoke and screen. Namely, hype and illusion.
As usual during the festival, the Carlton’s entranceway was decked out with a large movie poster. In years past, guests had exited through Pierce Brosnan’s legs in Tomorrow Never Dies, or under Tom Cruise’s wheels as he soared atop a motorcycle in Mission Impossible. This year the grand hotel’s entrance was encased in a spectacular poster, rimmed with jagged slices of ice. It was done in various shades of blue. It was for The Ice Princess, the Norwegian film that had been selected to open the Cannes Film Festival.
Ryan quickly made his way through the clogged lobby and down the corridor and presented his ticket to a man in a tuxedo at the door. Two women in sexy maroon teddies escorted him to his seat. To his amazement, it was in the best row. When the guy next to him turned around, Ryan saw it was Mick Jagger with a sly grin across his face. He wore a parrot-green sports coat and sipped from a water bottle.
“How is your murder spree going?” Mick asked, a fox-like smile jutting from the distinctive lips.
“I’m easing off a bit till the end of the festival, Ryan said. “Why? Need anyone whacked?”
“I’ll send you my list,” Mick answered and turned back toward the stage.
What was he doing sitting next to Mick Jagger? And the real crazy part was that Mick had recognized him, obviously from the press coverage. No use looking a gift horse in the mouth, Ryan reasoned, no matter how bizarrely inspired. Bottom line, he had a fantastic seat. Maybe his new notoriety had moved him up a notch in the social whirl. Crazier things had happened, especially at Cannes.
Ryan wondered again if the murder of Norwegian actress Ingrid Bjorge wasn’t some zany promotional ruse to drum up interest and publicity for a very bad movie. There were more than a few here that would have thought that was excellent marketing. But no matter how crazy his musings were, the movie business usually managed to top them.
Ryan left the screening and hurried up the sidewalk to the Rue d’Antibes. The store windows along the shopping area were alluring as ever, filled with succulent chocolates and candied fruit decorations, all back-dropped by the pretty French clerks with their auburn hair and colorful nails.
“Thinking of drilling somebody’s film to relieve the stress?”
Ryan turned around. It was a former media colleague turned cynical publicist.
“You’re right about needing to relieve the stress,” Ryan answered.
“You’re now a rock star, man.”
“Just what I don’t need.”
“This murder thing has really got you uptight,” the PR guy said.
Ryan agreed. Shielding his eyes from the sun that jutted down from high over the Mediterranean, he knew there was no getting around it. Someone was setting him up.
His mind raced with dark thoughts about being a fall guy in Ingrid Bjorge’s murder. His next screening was not until 6 p.m. in the Bunuel Screening Room at the Palais. He would go nose around the independent film companies. Ryan proceeded up the center staircase to the second floor. The stairway was crammed. People babbled in every language. It was busy and loud, like a third-world bazaar. The suites were rented out to an assortment of companies that were advertising their “product,” which was movie-speak for movies.
Ryan strolled through the hallway of the first floor. There was a crowd outside the office of Hands-On, known for cranking out quickie sex-romp movies. Ingrid graced the cover of one promo: she wore almost nothing, covered only in curious patches of animal skins. Another featured Ingrid, topless with a blue scarf around her neck and gazing out from a mountain with a pack of wolves circling her. The text featured a couple sentences on Erik Nilsson, the costume designer who had gotten his start designing costumes for music videos in Norway. But it was all Ingrid PR all the time by these slimes.
Ryan picked up a Hands-On’s sales brochure. Nick and Boris dominated the cover, identically dressed in black turtlenecks and gold sports coats. Ryan remembered that one of the Hollywood New Times’ saleswomen had complained that Hands-On owed the paper high six-figures for ads they never paid for. It only made sense, Ryan had told her since most of the movies they were promoting didn’t exist either. They just made up ads, and if enough foreigners thought they looked sexy or violent enough, they bought the distribution rights, or internet rights, or streaming rights or whatever the business model was these days.
Just then Nick tapped him on the shoulder.
“I’m glad to see you are no longer in prison and a suspect. I greatly enjoy your reviews, whenever they are not about our films,” Nick said. “You must stay and look at our product.”
“Sorry, I’m late for a screening,” Ryan said.
“We have set up your interview. It will be on our yacht.”
“I’ll contact you when my schedule straightens out,” Ryan called out. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He hurried along the Red Carpet that approached the drive-up to the Carlton and headed left along sidewalk toward the Palais. At that afternoon hour, the streets were clogged. The poinsettias gleamed in the center of the boulevard, fresh with their early morning dousing. Ryan had the feeling that somehow this side of Ingrid’s life that the worldwide public did not know about, Nick’s sleazy underworld, was involved in the murder.
Gunnar Severeid peered down at the Croisette. The silver-haired Norwegian leaned over slightly to see the entrance where the poster for his film The Ice Princess perched in festival splendor. Gunnar had reserved seven suites at the Carlton nearly a year ago. The chairman and president of VikFilms was also the majority owner of a multi-tiered corporation encompassing North Sea fishing, mineral exploration and oil drilling, Gunnar had an estimated worth of $27.7 billion in U.S. dollars. Forbes tabulated him as one of the world’s four richest men, in the company of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Paul Allen. There were other billionaires, but Forbes did not have access to Russian gangster accounts or sundry Third-World rulers. Gunnar was 6′ 5” and ruggedly handsome in a Scandinavian way with sparkling blues eyes. When he made an entrance in alpha-male domains, it was as if a powerful avenger had charged in to wipe out the vermin.
Now, at age 68, Gunnar was bored with the mundane routine of running a fishing/mineral/oil conglomerate. The $26,000 a day tab for the four-bedroom Imperial Suite, which he had booked for the entire festival, did not make a dent in his ledger line – petty cash. He had marveled how shady industrialists, garbage-collection moguls, used-car dealers, dry cleaning merchants, and criminal arms traders had made easy entrée into the Hollywood community and how quickly they were embraced once they started putting up money for movies.
Gunnar briefly speculated on which intelligence services would patrol the film festival because of the spectacular terrorist possibility such a gathering of stars would present, especially with the incessant media coverage. But, for now, he closed his eyes and waited, pacing himself for the moment when his plan would explode on the festival — “shock and awe,” as the Americans would say. He munched on his Klivar chocolate, savoring what he had already set in motion for the foolish bastards who had ruined his opening night and killed his lead actress.
Ryan nodded to the thong models as he headed toward the Hands-On yacht in the old harbor at Cannes and ambled up the ramp to the “Boffo”, the private yacht which the brothers Steele, Nick and Boris, had procured for Hands-On Films’ worldwide splash at the Cannes Film Festival. Their vessel du festival was an 80-footer with serious riggings, sexy electronics and plenty of low-deck space. Ryan had heard it was loaned out to Hands-On by a billionaire Russian for the first part of the festival.
Of the two bros, Nick was the more outgoing, while Boris was dour, a behind-the-scenes businessman. Ryan was still shocked that he had been assigned to do a profile on the two producers as part of the Hollywood New Times’ special Cannes section. He surmised that Hands-On must have purchased a boatload of ads to justify this advertorial.
“We will have a great festival. We have videos of Ingrid Bjorge’s early acting,” Nick blurted out as soon as he saw Ryan.
“You’ve got worldwide attention with her,” Ryan said.
“Yes, I spotted that blond two years ago when I was in Oslo. She did some great videos, and I secured the rights. I saw her talent.” He lit a Dunhill cigarette.
“Who would think that someday she would be the star of the opening night film The Ice Princess at Cannes?” Ryan said.
Boris approached Ryan and stood next to him without saying a word. Boris was not known for his charm.
“Jennifer Jolie did not show,” Nick yelled over to him.
“Believe me, from what I’ve heard about this Jennifer, she will never show up,” Boris said. "Typical porn actress."
Ryan didn’t know who she was. He turned and stared off at the blue sea. He speculated on what career advice he should give himself. In his darker moments, Ryan reflected on the demise of his own profession, the on-staff film critic. Many of colleagues at big city papers had been given pink slips, replaced by the syndicated movie critics. Actually, Ryan’s reviews cut out the local critics now that Reuters and some new syndicate in Europe picked up his commentary from the Hollywood New Times in their major markets. No telling how many critics Ryan himself had caused to be downsized.
In the not-too-distant future people would pull up “film critic” on Wikipedia and learn about the strange profession that had run through late 20th century and then fizzled out. It was maybe time for him to get back to that screenplay he had been working on forever, to position himself for a new stage. Ryan hated transitions. He’d ruminate about it after the festival. He just had to hunker down and get through this one.
“I can tell my grandchildren someday that I was at the Cannes Film Festival where the actress was killed,” a woman wearing a Universal cap said.
Ryan was seated in the lobby of the Savoy. He sat back in the deep red leather chair and watched the parade of people and array of outfits and styles, from the minimalist to the outlandish. One of his friends at a small distribution company never packed any clothes for the trip except his tux which he wore to every event where it was never out of place.
Many festival attendees had no defined professional purpose for being there, no set duty to perform. No one admitted it directly but it was the shopping, sunning, dining and screwing that were the raisons d’être for attending Cannes.
He started perusing the festival papers. All the publications still focused on the murder. The festival heads must be going nuts, he thought. Better yet, it was a glamour murder. It was something new to talk about this year, other than the general dreadfulness of the Competition film selections.
In many ways, Cannes was the same-old tired mistress, with its predictable, incestuous Competition line-up of all the usual filmmaker suspects: Steven Soderbergh, Mike Leigh, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorff, Richard Rainier Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Luc Besson, and more. He usually savored the movie-going experience. But for Ryan now, the thought of sitting through another esoteric movie with a bunch of Left Bank poseurs and then enduring their post-film natter about whatever abstract triviality was the film’s subject matter, seemed especially absurd and pointless, considering the jeopardy he was now in.
Ryan glanced at the headline in his own paper: “The Ice Princess Bestows Hands-On with Record International Cyber-Sales.” That morning’s article by Stan Peck trumpeted the prospect that Hands-On would release their early Ingrid Bjorge videos on the Internet. If he were a detective, he would suspect Hands-On had a motive for murder since the actress’ death meant a publicity boom for them.
He got up from his chair and tucked his laptop under his arm. Ryan knew he couldn’t waste time speculating on who-done-it. He was already way behind with his reviews.
Across the terrace, up above, three small planes looped their way through the light blue sky. Further out was a blimp. It was red and yellow with the Hands-On logo encrusted across its breadth. The whole walkway was packed, and it was this glob of humanity where the festival made a quick fade into everyday tourists. Ryan mused about how much of the festival really didn’t have to do with prestige movies at all.
This story first posted on May 8, 2017.