Canadians Dazzle Cannes

As an actor and writer, Don MCKELLAR has walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards and the Tonys. But he says nothing comes close to the insanity of running the gauntlet of cameras lining the red staircase of the Lumiere Theatre, the high altar of the Cannes Film Festival.

Canadians Dazzle Cannes

As an actor and writer, Don MCKELLAR has walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards and the Tonys. But he says nothing comes close to the insanity of running the gauntlet of cameras lining the red staircase of the Lumiere Theatre, the high altar of the Cannes Film Festival. "It's way more extreme than the Oscars," McKellar explains. "It's like going into a canyon in a stagecoach surrounded by, uh, predatory ... " Ditching the metaphor as it trails off into an unfortunate cul-de-sac, he adds, "It's just surreal. The photographers are yelling my name, Don! Don! And they don't really know my name - they've been told my name."

McKellar has braved the Cannes red carpet before, most recently at the 2004 premiere of Clean. But this week the 45-year-old Toronto filmmaker stepped into a whole other stratosphere of limelight with the premiere of Blindness. The movie, which he scripted from Nobel laureate José Saramago's 1995 novel, was honoured as the opening night gala at Cannes, a distinction held by only one other Canadian movie in the festival's 61-year history - Gilles Carle's Fantastica, in 1980. For McKellar, who also co-stars in Blindness, the premiere culminated a seven-year quest to bring Saramago's novel to the screen. And this Canada-Brazil-Japan co-production shows Canadian cinema finessing a new kind of cosmopolitan genre.

Blindness is a strangely elegant disaster movie. It takes place in a large, anonymous city that's ravaged by a pandemic of instant blindness - a mysterious contagion that bleaches its victims' vision into a sea of white light. Directed by Brazil's Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), the story tracks a group of early victims as they are herded into vans and quarantined in the filthy wards of an abandoned mental hospital. There, in a makeshift concentration camp, civilization gives way to chaos and brutality.

A blinded ophthalmologist, played by Mark Ruffalo, serves as the group's peacekeeping diplomat, guided by his wife (Julianne Moore), whose secret is that she still has her vision - the blond leading the blind, as one critic quipped. Gael García Bernal portrays a Kurtz-like megalomaniac who hoards rations, with Canada's Maury Chaykin as his twisted henchman. McKellar plays a weaselly thief.

Although Saramago's novel was written 13 years ago, pre-9/11, it remains prescient, foreshadowing the SARS crisis and a new millennium of fear. McKellar read the book while promoting his own apocalypse movie, Last Night. "It struck me hard," he says. "Its image of the fragility of society was so striking. And I was excited by doing a movie about blindness, which is also about seeing. It addresses a lot of Film 101 issues." With producer Niv Fichman of Toronto's Rhombus Media, McKellar courted Saramago, now 85, in the Canary Islands. "He lives in a house of his own design on a volcano with his young, beautiful wife," says McKellar. The novelist, who had resisted lucrative Hollywood offers for years, "was suspicious of the industry," but the Canadian filmmakers won his trust.

The author insisted the story remain set in a nameless metropolis. Shot largely in Sao Paulo and Guelph, Ont., the film uses a mix of U.S., Canadian, Mexican, Japanese and Brazilian actors. Imagine the global melee of Babel concentrated in a single location. "I'm proud it's a portrait of an international city," says McKellar. "It could easily be Toronto if you took a cross-section of the subway." The filmmakers also promised to avoid horror clichés. "One time I made the mistake of using the word 'zombie' in the script," says McKellar. "It had a context, but Fernando made sure I removed it."

The film was an unusual choice to launch Cannes, which has tended to open with over-hyped blockbusters shown out of competition, like The Da Vinci Code. But Blindness is also among the 22 features in competition, along with another Canadian entry, Atom Egoyan's Adoration. To subject Cannes' black-tie luminaries to an opening gala about a horde of blind, starved refugees groping through their own filth seems perverse. But stepping from that dystopia into the glittering Riviera night allows a certain magic. "With Blindness, the allegory is so adaptable," muses McKellar. "Opening a film festival with a film about light and vision - it's all very easy to extrapolate on. And God knows, they're French, so they should be able to do that."

See also: FILM INDUSTRY.

Maclean's May 26, 2008