Far From Roughing It

Budgets Tighten, but Hotel Still Beckons

A look at the premieres and other key moments from this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

CANNES, France -- The dirty little secret of the Cannes Film Festival is that it's dirty.

Despite the glamour of each night's red carpet arrivals, where tuxedos and froufrou gowns are de rigueur, a certain grubbiness inevitably sets in during the 11-day festival, where thousands of people jam the town's main thoroughfare, the Croisette, amid the noise and heat, pushing and shoving for access to the most coveted screenings. Think Mardi Gras meets high school prom meets a convention of plumbing-supply dealers.

It's no wonder that a small group of filmmakers and executives insist on staying out of the madding crowd, finding cool and quiet respite at the Hôtel du Cap Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes, a half-hour's drive from Cannes. Perched serenely amid cedar trees, palms and Aleppo pines, with a manicured lawn sloping toward the Mediterranean, this cathedral to luxury plays host every year to those with the taste -- and means -- to appreciate its rarefied pleasures, from the intimate bar decorated in a classical Provencal palette of Delft blue, white and sunflower yellow, to impeccably discreet service.

Never mind that the economic downturn led one wag recently to dub the redoubt "Hotel du Capped," referring to the newly instituted spending limits imposed by once profligate studios. (In an acknowledgement of financial realities, the hotel's historically cash-only Eden Roc Restaurant has begun accepting credit cards.) A visit this week found the hotel humming along quietly to the thwack of tennis balls being hit on its clay courts. Located at the end of a wide, gravel path, the Eden Roc, overlooking the sea and swimming pool, was populated by the usual mix of agents, publicists, producers and sundry golf-shirted gentlemen of a certain age accompanied by willowy young women decked out in this season's standard-issue uniform of Pucci-patterned maxi dresses and gladiator sandals.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are regulars at the Hôtel du Cap. So are George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and dozens of other stars, who are alphabetically listed on the hotel's Web site. This is where Orson Welles is said to have secured financing for his 1955 film, "Othello," and where, in 1985, Raul Julia serenaded guests with opera arias after the premiere of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." The Vanity Fair party was held here last year (it was canceled this year), and tonight Bill Clinton will arrive to auction off a saxophone at the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) fundraiser hosted by Sharon Stone, which has become a Cannes fixture.

"This is the center of the world right now," said Paul Schwartzman, an agent whose clients include Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai and Lars von Trier's production company, Zentropa (von Trier is another Hôtel du Cap regular). Schwartzman paused to watch an impossibly long-legged brunet dressed in a bright green blouse and black hot pants glide by. His gaze shifted to take in the nearby sea. "And you know what? It's spectacular."

Moments later, a flotilla of waiters appeared to serve Schwartzman and a companion the Platonic ideal of a Sunday lunch. The first installment: house-smoked salmon, served with a drizzle of olive oil, a few snips of local herbs and lozenges of cooked potato; fat, fresh asparagus served with a lemony sabayon spiked with Parmesan shavings; and a glass of the local vin rosé.

The Hôtel du Cap wasn't always the center of the world. Built in 1863 as a private villa, it opened as a hotel in 1870 and for the next 50 years was a destination for travelers looking for respite from cold winters in the Riviera sun. It wasn't until 1923, when the American couple Sara and Gerald Murphy -- whose friends included Pablo Picasso, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Archibald MacLeish -- rented the entire hotel, that it stayed open in the summer. By the time the Murphys leased the hotel for a second summer while they were renovating their own villa nearby, the Hôtel du Cap and surrounding environs were on their way to becoming a well-heeled destination for the soignee set year-round. Joseph P. Kennedy embarked on a passionate love affair with Marlene Dietrich here in 1938, and 10 years later Rita Hayworth met her future husband, the Prince Aly Khan.

The Murphys, whose dedication to gracious living and impeccable hospitality was legendary, surely would approve of the hotel's devotion to the gustatory taste and physical comfort of its guests. At the restaurant on this warm and breezy afternoon, white-jacketed members of a solicitous waitstaff effortlessly make their way across a crowded terrace and dining room, now completely full and buzzing with conversations kept low enough to remain just out of earshot.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Harvey Weinstein makes an appearance, glad-handing friends and colleagues at the outdoor tables. The buzz audibly heightens, and the air seems somehow thinner. Without a doubt, the axis has shifted. No longer the center of the world, the Hôtel du Cap is now clearly the center of the universe. "You just saw Irving Thalberg," says Schwartzman, referring to the legendary producer and tucking into his entree of a whole sea bass dressed with a sauce of olive oil, white butter, basil and tomato.

Just as quickly as he materialized, Weinstein disappears. The Eden Roc terrace returns to its low-key pre-Harvey buzz. After a chocolate mille-feuille and an espresso, accompanied by a lesson from an Italian waiter on how to make coffee in a traditional moka ("Don't drink the first 20 cups; use them for tiramisu"), it's time finally to decamp for Cannes, which by now seems a world away. It may be crowded, clamoring and confounding, but it's still where the movies are.

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