Cannes Film Festival 2000

Fifteen minutes. That's about how long it took to walk from the champagne reception at the Majestic Hotel to the top of the red carpet, even though the hotel was right across the street.

Cannes Film Festival

Fifteen minutes. That's about how long it took to walk from the champagne reception at the Majestic Hotel to the top of the red carpet, even though the hotel was right across the street. French security led the way as the cast of Stardom slow-marched past the Instamatic mob, the thousands of fans thronged behind steel barricades. Cheers went up as they recognized semi-famous faces - Charles Berling, Frank Langella, Thomas Gibson, Robert Lepage, Camilla Rutherford. Some even picked out the director, Quebec's Denys Arcand. But at this closing-night première at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival (May 10 to 21), most eyes were on the young beauty in the black organza gown who had enough diamonds around her neck that they came with a bodyguard. Even if no one had heard of Jessica Paré, everyone could see she was a star.

The procession was stalled at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Palais's Cinema Lumière - protocol requires the stars to save their entrances to the end. "Like peasants, we are early," mused Arcand, as he and his cast cooled their heels. Finally given the signal, they made their way up the carpet. The legion of photographers lining the steps went crazy for Paré. "Jessica! Jessica! Over here!" they shouted, as she worked to oblige a hundred lenses with individual eye contact. "It was a trip and a half," the 19-year-old Montreal ingenue said at a dinner after the première. "It was really weird, all these people screaming your name. I was in the movie."

In fact, the world that Paré's character inhabits in Stardom has uncanny parallels to the one she fell into on the French Riviera. Arcand's black comedy charts the rise and fall of a young innocent named Tina Menzhal, who is plucked from the obscurity of a girl's hockey team in Cornwall, Ont., to become a supermodel. In Cannes, that is more or less what happened to Paré, an unknown actress barely out of high school who was thrown into a media vortex. Like a kid on a carnival ride, she appeared to be enjoying her fame, at least for a while. To quote her character: "It was all fun, until it was not fun."

Because the festival's closing-night gala serves as a digestif after the awards ceremony, Paré's moment in the spotlight was partially eclipsed by the stars presenting or winning prizes - ranging from the regal Catherine Deneuve to the eccentric Björk, the Icelandic singer named best actress for Lars Von Trier's Palme d'Or champion, Dancer in the Dark. And with some of the audience leaving the theatre to celebrate after the awards, the house was less than packed for the première of Stardom, which was not in competition. "I was sitting there staring at about 20 empty seats in front of me," lamented Paré. The movie, meanwhile, left critics underwhelmed. Costing $12 million, and woven from 150 speaking parts, this acerbic comedy of media manners may be Arcand's most ambitious work. But it feels less substantial than his previous Cannes triumphs, The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989), and lacks the dramatic ballast that kept the comedy in both those movies on an even keel. Filmed in English, Stardom unfolds as a barrage of sketches, and the central conceit - that the whole movie is shot through the eyes of the media - often seems forced.

But there are compensations. Arcand's script is peppered with witty asides, many delivered by Gibson (Dharma and Greg), who creates a chilling portrayal of a Hollywood agent. There is priceless dig at Paris intellectuals. And Stardom, which begins with ice and ends with snow, has extra resonance for Canadians, with playful swipes at Celine Dion, MuchMusic, Cyprus peacekeeping and Front Page Challenge. Also, as a satire of celebrity - coming from a country without a star system, it may well have created a star while sending up the whole idea: the camera adores Paré.

Arcand discovered her last year just three weeks before shooting was set to begin, and he had to buy out a contract with another actress already signed to play the role, a 26-year-old Canadian. "A gorgeous girl who can act is a gold mine," said Arcand, in one of a string of interviews on a sunlit pier in Cannes. "And there aren't that many gold mines in the world. I saw hundreds of girls but they were never what I was looking for." At the suggestion of Stardom co-producer Robert Lantos, Arcand had even auditioned Lantos' girlfriend, who was with the producer in Cannes - Tonia Lynn, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and herself a budding movie producer based in New York City. "It was quite awkward," says Arcand, "We did a long audition. But she really wasn't right for the part."

Paré was discovered when she showed up to read for a small role, as a VJ. Aside from an appearance on an A&E miniseries, her acting experience had been confined to high-school productions - she had played Jesus in Godspell and Maid Marian in Robin Hood. Growing up bilingual with three brothers in the Montreal suburb of Notre Dame de Grace, Paré is the daughter of Anthony Paré, head of the education department at McGill University, and Louise Mercier, a conference translator. She once tried to become a model herself but the agency informed her she was "too fat." Once Arcand had cast her, she was put on a no-carb diet, taught to skate and, like her character, was groomed for stardom.

The director says his idea for the film evolved from wondering "where does the power of beauty comes from? I always found myself completely defenceless in front of a beautiful woman. So I start kicking this idea around and eventually this person becomes a model. Then I realized that these models have become famous because of television." Arcand's ruminations about the power of beauty turned into a movie about the power of the media. But he insists it is not a satire: "I'm just telling you what I've experienced. I'm not exaggerating."

The problem with satirizing celebrity is that the unreality of the real thing tends to outstrip the parody. And nowhere is that more evident than in Cannes, where Arcand kept winding up in situations as absurd as those in the movie. Stardom lampoons celebrity fund-raising events for various diseases. And the glitziest event in Cannes was the benefit for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), where guests paid $2,500 each to attend a Victoria's Secret fashion show and a dinner hosted by Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John.

At the cocktail reception beforehand, the black-tie crowd milled around exhibits at a silent auction. Up for grabs were gowns, feasts and getaways - a week on a private island in the Mediterranean once owned by Rudolf Nureyev went for $120,000. A somewhat dishevelled Sean Penn made an entrance with Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. And, walking with a cane, 84-year-old icon Gregory Peck - the subject of a reverent documentary by Barbara Kopple - struck up an incongruous-looking conversation with director John Waters, who had just premièred Cecil B. DeMented, a trashy satire about terrorists who kidnap a faded Hollywood star.

Meanwhile, Arcand, with his producer and partner Denise Robert by his side, recalled seeing some of the amfAR supermodels naked backstage at a New York fashion show five years ago while researching Stardom. "It was the night of the Quebec referendum," he said. "I was with Jeannie Becker and these Canadians who wanted to leave to get the results. And I was saying, 'C'mon, we're seeing Claudia Schiffer naked!' "

The models parading near-naked at the amfAR event included Tyra Banks, Laetitia Casta, Stephanie Seymour - and Heidi Klum, who donated a massage that Weinstein later auctioned off for $31,000. The lingerie spectacle was like a combination of upscale strip show, rock concert and alien landing. Asked what he made of it all as he watched from his front-row seat, Peck gruffly replied: "Well, you look at their haunches. But there's not much meat on the bone." Afterwards, critic Roger Ebert took snapshots of Liz Taylor and chatted up Weinstein, who revealed that Mick Jagger was to have been the surprise guest until his mother passed away.

Despite all the glamour being flaunted in Cannes, the festival's raison d'être, the film competition, remains far removed from Hollywood. Two Iranian films took the Camera d'Or, the prize for best first feature. Another Iranian entry, Blackboards, shared the jury's third prize with a surreal Swedish film - her voice shaking, director Samira Makhmalbaf, 20, bravely used her acceptance speech to call for democracy in Iran. The jury's second prize went to Devils on the Doorstep, Jiang Wen's comic melodrama about baffled Chinese peasants holding Japanese prisoners of war. Tony Leung was named best actor for In the Mood for Love, a tale of sublimely unrequited romance by Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai. And Björk's triumph with Dancer in the Dark confirmed a trend, set last year by David Cronenberg's jury, of awarding prizes to novice actors. But this year's jury, unlike Cronenberg's, avoided controversy with choices that reflected a popular consensus.

Without a film in competition, Canada, meanwhile, had a low profile. Quebec's Guylaine Dionne premièred a first feature, Les Fantômes des trois Madeleine, in the alternative Director's Fortnight. But this pallid tale of three generations of women travelling to the Gaspé - call it The Heart of Lightness - generated no buzz. And Arcand's movie suffered from being stuck at the end of the festival, and from the fact that the cast's biggest name, Dan Aykroyd, did not show. At Stardom's news conference, the filmmakers and cast on the podium were in danger of outnumbering the journalists in attendance. Lantos - who has produced or co-produced every English-Canadian film officially selected by Cannes for the past three decades - could not help observing that the media's response to Stardom was "pretty tame," especially compared with the outrage that greeted Cronenberg's Crash in Cannes four years earlier.

It is 1 a.m. After the première and the dinner, a weary Paré slowly walks down the Croisette, her borrowed Escada dress trailing along the pavement. Along with some of the Stardom crew, she is headed for a small Miramax party at a restaurant on the beach. There, with a Madonna song pumping across the dance floor, a few revellers are squeezing the last dregs of excitement from the festival. Paré does not stay long. Exhausted, she soon heads back to the Carlton Hotel.

One of her co-stars, Quebec dramatist Robert Lepage, lingers at the edge of the dance floor, overlooking the beach, and wonders what he is doing there. "I don't usually go to these things," he says. "You pick up someone. You dance. It's all very shallow." I point out that Björk is sitting at a table on the sand just a few feet away, unmistakable in her dress of concentric stars. "Ah, Björk," sighs Lepage. "I love Björk. I would change my religion for her" - i.e. she is one woman who could persuade him to consider heterosexuality. So why doesn't he go over and introduce himself? Maybe she's dying to meet him. "Maybe not," he says. "Besides, that's not something I do."

Lepage then launches into a dissertation on Iceland, explaining how Björk is the country personified, "ice on top, volcanic underneath," and how the island is heated from volcanic sources, and there are thermal greenhouses with holes in the ground where carrots are cooked by the time they're picked. Then he glances over to the spot on the sand where Björk was sitting, but she has vanished into the night.

Maclean's June 5, 2000