Letter From Cannes

Woody Allen Steals the Show

Woody Allen, with wife Soon-Yi, is the man of the moment at Cannes.
Woody Allen, with wife Soon-Yi, is the man of the moment at Cannes. (By Vincent Kessler -- Reuters)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

CANNES -- The French may have officially flag-waved this year's Cannes Film Festival to its competitive start Wednesday, but it took Woody Allen to get the engines racing a day later with a screening of his latest, "Match Point," which has generated more buzz than any of the Golden Palm contenders.

One small problem: "Match Point" -- a mordant comedy starring Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who played Elvis Presley on television to great acclaim this week) and Emily Mortimer -- is being screened out of competition.

So Allen will walk away with nothing but warm fuzzy feelings from the French, whose reverence for the filmmaker eclipses anything the United States has shown him since the days of "Annie Hall." But this week's admiration is based on more than Gallic loyalty: The film is his best in decades. "Match Point" is the tale of a twisted love quadrangle set in present-day English high society.

Allen, flanked by wife Soon-Yi, Johansson, Rhys Meyers and other actors from the film, seemed characteristically uncomfortable with the fusillade of cameras flashing during his news conference. The frail 69-year-old, who is losing his hearing, seemed disoriented as he failed to locate questioners in the crowd, frequently asking them to repeat themselves. But once brought up to speed, he spoke with good-natured candor.

He loves working with British actors, he said, because "to an American ear, they all sound great to us." When asked about the "cynicism" in his films in general and "Match Point" in particular, he responded, "I always feel that cynicism is reality with an alternate spelling."

The movie was shot in England and features, with the exception of Johansson (an American) and Rhys Meyers (who is Irish), an all-British cast and crew because Allen secured British financing, he said, and English tax laws required a high percentage of British participation. Another factor: Too many American studios demand creative participation in his films, whereas BBC Films left him alone.

"I just want the money in a brown paper bag," he quipped.

It is early yet, so the mixed-to-tepid reactions that have greeted such films as Dominik Moll's "Lemming," Kobayashi Masahiro's "Bashing," Hiner Saleem's "Kilometre Zero" and Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies" aren't necessarily indicative of a poor year. Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," a fictional reimagining of the last days of Kurt Cobain, has attracted its share of admirers. And the likes of Robert Rodriguez (his "Sin City" is in competition), Tommy Lee Jones (the actor is making his directorial debut with "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"), Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and others have yet to get their night on the red carpet.

But in the meantime, Allen has enjoyed playing temporary king of the Croisette, the main promenade.

Though artists of a certain age have held the spotlight here -- Allen at his premiere, Catherine Deneuve while receiving an honorary Palme d'Or on Thursday, Charlotte Rampling after wowing crowds at the "Lemming" screening -- the younger glamour pusses were the focus of frenzy.

"Scarlett! Scarlett!" yelled the lens-bearers. Even Roger Ebert elbow-jostled with photographers to get snaps of Johansson.

And when four-time Cannes prize winner Emir Kusturica, aka the art director's art director, led his eight-person Cannes jury to their news conference, all camera barrels were directed to one face only.

"Salma!" "Salma!" yelled the voices as actress Salma Hayek photo-oped with her fellow jurors, including author Toni Morrison, Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Indian actress Nandita Das, French filmmaker Agnes Varda, German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot and Hong Kong actionmeister John Woo.

Other camera candy still to come: Juliette Binoche (who stars in Michael Haneke's "Hidden," also in competition), Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's kid, who appears in von Trier's "Manderlay"), Maria Bello (she's in Cronenberg's "A History of Violence") and Sharon Stone, who will strut her stuff for Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" and pump up publicity for the movie that you knew was going to be made sooner or later: "Basic Instinct 2."

Limousine after limousine approaches the red carpeted Lumiere cinema, Photo Op Central at Cannes, coursing slowly through the throngs of stargazers like so many barges cutting through a branch-clogged C&O Canal. Those watching read the license plates eagerly as if the letters might give a clue as to who is within, peering into the tinted windows, perhaps hoping the intensity of their stares might reveal a Brad, an Angelina, a Nicole. Even a French star will do. Instead, they find themselves faced with a visual punch line: distorted reflections of themselves. Inevitably, the limos move on, disappearing into the jostling phalanx of photographers and more onlookers. Aah, Cannes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company