A documentary shot at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, James Toback’s Seduced And Abandoned explores the unique aura of the festival itself, cinema art, money, glamour and death.
Monkey Business by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Seduced And Abandoned is a very clever faux-naïf film that uses the Cannes Film Festival as a metaphor for filmmaking itself. At Cannes, art and business co-exist side by side. For critics, it’s a chance to see the first screening of most of the year’s important films, and for the filmmakers and their stars, it’s the glamorous Montée des Marches, parading up the red carpet to their premieres. There’s a reverence for film and filmmakers that you see nowhere else, it’s said. But down in the basement, in the bowels of the Palais, are the denizens of the less-glamourous film market.
Cannes has a split personality and cinema itself is a contradiction. “Cinema is an art form given to us by the gods,” Coppola asserts. “Cinema isn’t poetry. It needs money. It’s an industry,” says a distributor. And a quote from Orson Welles heads this film: “I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% making them. It’s no way to live.” So that’s what writer and director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin do at Cannes. They run around from meeting to meeting trying to raise finance for their pitch of Last Tango in Tikrit, a Trojan horse (an unfilmable spoof, surely?) that, however, allows them access to some of the film world’s top players – on both the creative and business sides. Together, they’re a highly entertaining pair of professionals – amusing, wise-cracking, knowledgeable and self-aware.
Touting round their idea for a film, we see them pitching it in hotel suites, balconies, boats to executives who are incredulous, amused, bored or politely simulating interest. And the cynical – “The way you keep your job is by making a bad film that everyone goes to see. You don’t get points by making a good film that no-one went to see.” Their attempts to fund their film are comically unsuccessful, but on the way they gain a wealth of information about how the business works and what their value is in it – and it turns out to be a lot less than they thought. Seeking $15 million to make their movie, their notions about Alec Baldwin’s bankability are quickly cut down to size – he’s worth a mere $4-5 million budget – and they prepare to sideline their preferred Neve Campbell as his co-star for someone with better box office appeal – though Diane Kruger is spectacularly unconvinced by their pitch.
In the end, their pitch does a 180-degree about turn. The setting has been relocated from Iraq to Tunisia where there are government incentives. And their pitch for it has changed from seeking finance for a specific project to the “Tell me how much and I’ll devise the film” that Toback offers pragmatically, or maybe desperately, since – like everything these two have been up to – you can’t be sure how serious it is. Finally, what they go home with is what they came with – hope. As Alec Baldwin says, it’s like a bad girlfriend – “I’ve been seduced and abandoned so many times.”
Seduced and Abandoned is a fascinating and very dense documentary that makes almost too good a use of split screen to compress a wealth of information into 100 minutes. It starts with a collage of Cannes’ history from its inception. Throughout, it cuts frantically between shots of the various manifestations of the festival in 2012 Cannes. An interview screen is split between the talking heads and clips from their films – there’s too much to take in at one viewing.
Toback and Baldwin had quality interview time with a wealth of directors, who they seem to have been able to relax into talking very naturally – Bertolucci, Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski. Industry players such as Jeremy Thomas and many other top distributors and producers. Journalists such as Hollywood Reporter’s veteran Todd McCarthy, who attended his first Cannes in 1970 when he was one of only three US journalists, and Vanity Fair’s legendary editor Graydon Carter. Actor Ryan Gosling, who gives a bleak and very funny description of what it’s like to audition in Hollywood when you’re an unknown. And at least three billionaires who clearly wouldn’t invest their money in the film with a barge pole.
Next to the Palais des Festivals in Cannes is a children’s playground with a little merry-go-round, where real life carries on as normal during the festival despite the madness around it. Toback has used this image to structure the various sections of his film – history, pitching, bankability, marketability and, finally, death – and the music of Shostakovich as an overly intrusive, nonstop audio equivalent. For Baldwin, on his first trip to Cannes, it conveys the festival to him because it ranges from “dark and poetic” to “perversely playful”, conveying “fatality and elegance”.
And fatality introduces the funniest part of the film. Following up on the Norman Mailer quote “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long”, the pair asked everyone they met the same question: “Are you afraid of death or are you ready for death?”. The variety of responses they get gives us yet another insight into the personalities of the film world’s celebrities and moguls. The film is essential viewing for all would-be directors or anyone who wants to understand the film business. It’s so packed with insider insights about the business, wisdom about the changing nature of filmmaking and some of the best directors in the world talking incredibly frankly about their creative process that, ironically for a film about film, it’s best watched on DVD, where you can pause and replay so you don’t miss anything.
Seduced And Abandoned is released on 8th November 2013 in the UK