At Cannes, the movie stars cheer 'The Player,' the movie that satirizes them

May 11, 1992|By Janet Maslin | Janet Maslin,New York Times News Service

CANNES, France -- There were posturing and schmooozing and power-breakfasting to be seen here over the weekend, and some of those things actually took place off the screen. The rest were on view in "The Player," which thoroughly enchanted the Cannes audience even as it lacerated much of what that audience holds dear.

Shown only three days into the Cannes International Film Festival, "The Player" was cheered for its dead-on satire and its irreverence, both of which give it the earmarks of a possible winner. The fact that the director, Robert Altman, publicly expressed his disapproval of organized competitions among artists probably only heightened his chances of winding up with a major prize at this one.

Although "The Player" speaks a universal language, some of it was inevitably lost in translation. The film's running gag about brands of bottled water seldom turned up in the subtitles. And of course Altman's famous fondness for overlapping dialogue could not be adequately conveyed.

But the festival audience had its own eye for interesting details, buzzing more about minor players like director Sydney Pollack than about movie-star walk-ons like Cher. The audience was particularly startled by the film's jokes about newspaper headlines like the one about a mud slide in Chile that is described by Peter Gallagher, playing an ambitious movie executive, as good material for director John Boorman. (Boorman happens to be on the Cannes jury this year.)

Even greater frissons were caused by the film's references to a gas-chamber execution and to the beating of Rodney King. "It seems to me that if we were able to anticipate both of those events, George Bush and the American government should have been able to anticipate them as well," Mr. Altman said firmly at his news conference.

Mr. Altman also described Hollywood executives as being so shortsighted that "they only worry about making enough money to fill their own swimming pools until they get fired." He faltered only once during the session, when faced with a reporter from Iceland, a country that is regularly made fun of in his film. Only momentarily flustered, Mr. Altman stuck to his film's contention that "Iceland is green and Greenland is icy."

A few hours later, marveling over the bouillabaisse at a famous seaside restaurant, novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin remembered what the Cannes festival had conjured up for him when he was a young art-house film fan.

"This is the fantasy you punish yourself for having," said Mr. Tolkin, who was here for the first time. It was Mr. Tolkin who originally evoked "The Bicycle Thief" in his novel "The Player" (it is briefly glimpsed in Mr. Altman's film) as a throwback to the golden age of the Eurpoean art film, and "because it is unbelievably sentimental and painfully true at the same time, which is a combination that's been lost."

As for his collaboration with Mr. Altman, whose style is much looser than the writer's hard-edged prose, Mr. Tolkin said the upshot was that the director "wound up knowing more about how the characters felt about each other, and I knew more about how they felt about themselves."

Both the writer and the director remarked upon the fact that the film "The Player" includes not a single reference to an agent, apparently because Mr. Altman preferred not to give agents the satisfaction of being brought to mind. But Mr. Tolkin is working on a novel about an agent, which he said he expects to finish soon after returning to California.

"This looks like home," said his wife as she gazed wistfully out at the ocean. "Except our pool isn't this big, Wendy," Mr. Tolkin said.

As "The Player" began one of its main promotional events on Saturday night -- a candle-lighted, paparazzi-ringed gala on the beachfront deck of the Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel -- this festival took on the otherworldly glamour for which it is so well known.

An even more dazzling photo opportunity came along the next day at a villa a short distance outside town. The party there was in honor of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who have a lot to live up to in the villa department. Sure enough, they had found a small chateau and a large formal garden well worthy of their "Howards End," which was shown in competition yesterday.

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