Letter From Cannes

Partying Like It's 11:59

Responding to potential critics of his environmental activism, DiCaprio, above posing for photos at Cannes and below during filming of
Responding to potential critics of his environmental activism, DiCaprio, above posing for photos at Cannes and below during filming of "11th Hour," says: "I'm completely aware that my mere attachment as being from Hollywood would raise suspicions among some people." (By Pascal Le Segretain -- Getty Images)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

CANNES, France -- It just doesn't seem fair.

We're sitting in a bungalow by the Mediterranean with Leonardo DiCaprio, and he's talking about the end of the world. Not necessarily the end of the Earth, mind you. The planetary ecosystem will continue to function (barring collision with a meteor, but that's another movie). No. What DiCaprio and his scientist friends are talking about is the fate of "the third chimpanzee," which would be us, the humans. It could be curtains. DiCaprio is wearing Prada sunglasses as he discusses our possible extinction. Hey. If you're going down, we say, go in style.

DiCaprio wants us to freak. "I want the public to feel bleak," he says. Because it's wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee time. But do not despair, DiCaprio says. We have to admit that we are nest soilers. We have to, like a shoe addict, admit we have a problem. But we can clean up the mess. That at least appears to be the message of his new documentary that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It's called, ominously, "11th Hour," though some of the earth science specialists and eco-thinkers in the movie suggest it's more like 11:58 p.m. GMT.

The film, inspired in part by Al Gore and his Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth," is one of those celebrity "call to arms" projects that are popular these days. DiCaprio credits Gore, especially, for raising his own environmental consciousness at a White House meeting soon after the release of "Titanic." But unlike the former vice president's movie, which dealt exclusively with global climate change, DiCaprio's film -- which he co-wrote, co-produced and stars in as narrator -- is Environmental Crisis 101. It opens in theaters in October.

And it's got everything: waste, consumerism, the Amazon, greed, TV, baby-seal killers, Exxon, species extinction, L.A. traffic, fossil fuels, disappearing ice caps, SUVs, deforestation, oil, pollution, overpopulation, Dick Cheney, soil evaporation, overfishing, Katrina and those poor polar bears stranded on their lonely ice floes; they just break your heart. Seriously, a world without polar bears?

The 91-minute movie is filled with stock footage, clips shown in rapid succession, and it opens (we're writing notes as fast as we can during the screening) with images of turtles, gas masks, flooding, red meat, dumps, wildfires, storms, lava, glaciers, all accompanied by angelic singing. Then Leo appears. We hear that the Earth is our "only home, our web of life," but the biosphere is sick and we are the germs.

It is heavy-duty stuff, and at the beach cabana DiCaprio and his team -- producer-director sisters Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners -- tell us they debated long into many nights how heavy to make it and whether to end the film on a nihilistic downer (we're toast) or an up note. They went with a Hollywood up. That we can fight our way to balance. Or, as Conners Petersen put it: "We can climb the mountain of sustainability." And that we have to start somewhere, and so we must recycle, mulch, compost, buy energy-efficient light bulbs, drive fuel-efficient vehicles, insulate our homes, buy locally made stuff -- and demand some action from our leaders.

And who can really argue with the message that we should treat our lovely blue planet better? "I didn't want to make a political film," DiCaprio says. "It's such an amazingly large issue, and suddenly you feel like, what can I do? What can I do? It's too big for me to deal with."

DiCaprio says that in feature films, it is often said "that the director is God, but in a documentary like this, God is the director," by which we think he means that Mother Nature is telling us something, like, we're gonna get spanked.

How heavy-duty is it? The documentary features the conventional switching back and forth between images and talking (egg) heads. There are 50 of them, according to the film's Web site, including Stephen Hawking, Lester Brown, Sylvia Earle, Andrew Weil, Bill McKibben, Stephen Schneider and Mikhail Gorbachev (but no Goracle). The former head of the evil empire tells us that solving the Earth's environmental problems is the challenge of the century. There is talk of "a coming dark ages," the need for "planetary liposuction." Kenny Ausubel, founder of the nonprofit environmental group Bioneers, whom DiCaprio brought to Cannes, says in the movie, "The planet will survive; we're the ones that may not survive." Then another guy, the one who started the Whole Earth catalogue, explains it's not an environmental crisis, "it's a harmony crisis."

If you're hip to environmental issues, the film might not have much new to offer -- though we learned some things. Did you know that kids can identify 1,000 corporate brands but not 10 plants in their back yard? And trees? We knew they were cool, but each also soaks up and stores 760 gallons of rainfall. Also, embrace the fungi. Mushrooms, the ultimate "biofilters," might save us.

Of course, DiCaprio is asked if he, a Hollywood celebrity, is the best messenger, given his lifestyle. "We all do what we can," he says. At an earlier news conference, he reported that he had flown to Cannes on a commercial airliner rather than a private jet and that his house in L.A. has solar panels and he drives a hybrid. He tells us, "I'm completely aware that my mere attachment as being from Hollywood would raise suspicions among some people." But Hollywood has often been active on social issues, like civil rights and military conflicts.

"If you want to deny this issue, you can always latch onto something. So Leo is a Hollywood actor," says Conners. "It's a cheap shot. A celebrity getting slammed because he's not completely green."

Who is the film's audience? DiCaprio is a young 32, so does he draw the kids to the film? Perhaps. The film's directors say they want "university students" and "thought leaders" to see the movie, but shouldn't they already know about this stuff?

Conners, who is wearing a flattering blouse made of recycled wood pulp, says a greener, sustainable future "doesn't mean wearing animal skins and sitting in a cave. . . . Enviros like to party." She promises, "We can still have Cannes." We just have to be cool about it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company