It was a bright, warm evening along the boulevard de la Croisette, and any sensible people in this part of France were still at the beach, or enjoying a glass of wine at their local boîte, or making a last-minute run to the grocery store. (Globalization has had no apparent effect on the notoriously eccentric hours of French shopkeepers.)
But there are no sensible people in Cannes at this time of year, by definition. So there we were, media types by the thousands, gathered around to watch Tom Hanks creep through a mob of tuxedo-clad photographers toward the steps of the Palais des Festivals, doing his usual public performance: Hey, I'm just a regular Joe doin' my job, and geez, fellas, what's with all the flash bulbs? Along with director Ron Howard and fellow "Da Vinci Code" cast members Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno and Alfred Molina, Hanks had arrived the previous day on a special Eurostar express train from London, but he nonetheless wore a cultivated look of jet lag.
I was maybe 200 yards away from these proceedings, at the perfect vantage point: in the press room on the fourth floor of the Palais, watching the whole thing on closed-circuit TV. Around me, every movement and gesture was being dissected with medical precision, in French, Spanish, English, Italian and other languages I understand even less than those. McKellen, it was said, added "un soupçon d'élégance" to the proceedings, although to me he looked no happier than Hanks. Zhang Ziyi elicited appreciative sighs as she floated up the steps like a paper butterfly, and Samuel L. Jackson, always a favorite here for his style and physical presence as much as his acting, produced a general bumblebee-buzz. (Both are Palme d'Or jury members this year.)
A group of photographers from the celebrity-crazed newspapers of Rome and Milan rushed in from the red carpet to upload their photos of Monica Bellucci (another jury member), who looked predictably fabulous, and began arguing about who her Asian costar would be in an upcoming film: Lucy Liu or Michelle Yeoh? An Irish reporter conferred with a nearby American over the most damning adjectives in the early reviews of "The Da Vinci Code"; I believe they settled on "lackluster," "grim" and "dismal."
If Hanks, in his unflattering new meathead haircut, and Howard, who has finally shed his baseball cap and embraced baldness, looked a little sour and nervous as they climbed the steps, they had good reason to be. They were the sacrificial calves at the opening ceremony of the 59th Festival de Cannes, sent here from Hollywood to be lavishly fattened and then publicly dispatched. The ritual is economic, psychological and spiritual, all at the same time. Premieres of American event pictures aimed at a global market are a necessary element of the Cannes equation, but always an awkward one. They represent Europe's love-hate relationship with American culture, or, in Jungian terms, an attempt to lure one's enemy into unfamiliar territory, then kill him and steal his Ring of Power.
Such was the mood at the official "Da Vinci Code" press conference earlier on Wednesday afternoon, when Howard and Hanks fielded a variety of borderline-unfriendly questions. (Unsurprisingly, the non-Americans in the cast were handled more gently.) Howard was asked about directing the film's scenes in French, and admitted he didn't speak a word of the language. Gamely, he tried to turn the question into a joke on his own squareness. He had asked his on-set translators, he said, "Are you sure nobody's slipping in any curse words?"
A Spanish reporter stood up to suggest that if you tried to view the film as being in any way serious, "you might have some problems," but that as an amusement it might be effective. Howard said that "raised an interesting point." Although he was aware of the potential controversy surrounding the production, he said, his film was not meant either to antagonize Roman Catholics or to gratify them, nor indeed (as he seemed to suggest) to make anyone feel anything specific at all. "I think the novel entertained a wide range of people in different ways, and we've tried to capture that. That's the magic of what Dan Brown has created."
Hanks chimed in, "When I go to the movies, certainly one of the things I like to see is crackerjack entertainment, and I think Ron has provided that." Had either of them read the early reviews, laced as they were by those aforementioned unhappy adjectives? Howard said he hadn't, but that he hoped some of the adjectives to come would be more "upbeat."
You almost felt sorry for them. Back in the press room a few hours later, as the red-carpet area began to clear and the formal-clad throng took their seats in the Grand Théâtre Lumière for the opening ceremony, you could feel the biting commentary flying from laptops to all parts of the world. Hanks and Howard were inside, waiting for the actual screening of the film to begin, but they had in effect already been dismissed.
The ritual was complete, and life, even in Cannes, would move on. We would all wake up on Thursday to another beautiful day on the Côte d'Azur. "The Da Vinci Code" will open all over the world and earn $100 million or more. (Cannes reception aside, it will almost certainly be the week's top-grossing film here in France.) Competition screenings will begin in earnest, with Ken Loach's drama of the Irish revolution, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and Lou Ye's erotic-cum-political romance, "Summer Palace," two films that between them might not earn $1 million in the United States. And I can say with confidence that today's Italian newspaper readers will see some smashing photos of Monica Bellucci.