Beyond the Multiplex

Clooney, Soderbergh premiere "Ocean's Thirteen," wave off sequel talk. Plus: Why my shirt smells like Catherine Deneuve's cigarettes.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 24, 2007 8:45PM (EDT)

So I caught most of the mob-scene press conference that followed the first screening of "Ocean's Thirteen" here on Thursday, and there was more group hilarity than actual conversation from that likable gang of guys up there on the stage. It's fair to say that, as in the movie itself, content wasn't really the point. George Clooney proclaimed that the film would win the Palme d'Or, which was a joke. (It isn't in competition.) Director Steven Soderbergh said that the main thing his series has inherited from the Sinatra Rat Pack pictures of the early '60s was the "camaraderie of the cast," adding that his principal casting rule was "No jerks." (They didn't have that rule in the '60s.)

Everybody said gentlemanly things about Ellen Barkin, who has a small and mildly risky role as a bitchy middle-aged woman whose great weakness turns out to be younger men (and Matt Damon's character in particular). She didn't get a word in edgewise. Clooney and Brad Pitt looked great, dressed in stylish slim-fitting blazers similar to the designer togs in the film, which was impressive on a day when the temperature and humidity crept to midsummer heat-wave levels here. Damon looked a little square in a powder-blue short-sleeve shirt, and I don't remember him saying anything. Oh, wait: He said he might be interested in coming back for a reunion in "Ocean's Fourteen," but Clooney was more skeptical: "I think we have sapped this tree."

Soderbergh said that the "Ocean's" films are actually harder for him to make than his "serious," art-house films. Gesturing out at the group of reporters, he said, "There's an assumption on that side of the room that isn't on this side of the room, an assumption that people who make entertainment films somehow care less about what they're doing." He added that the "Ocean's" series has allowed him to experiment with camera motion, editing and, especially in this new film, the exaggerated colors of his Las Vegas setting.

He also graciously resisted a reporter's comparisons between his new film, in which Danny Ocean (Clooney) and the boys set out to swindle an evil casino developer played by Al Pacino, and "The Sting," the Hollywood classic with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. "Listen, 'The Sting' might be the greatest con-man film of all time," he said. "We venerate that film, in terms of form and structure. There's a reason why you don't see movies like that all the time."

Yeah, I guess there is. As a group and individually, it's hard to dislike the crop of stars in "Ocean's Thirteen"; they seem so firmly devoted to enjoying their lives and not taking their celebrity status too seriously. But as Soderbergh and Clooney's comments suggest, all these fellows now understand that the "Ocean's" movies have been drained of nearly all the fun and cinematic verve they once possessed. You couldn't call "Ocean's Thirteen" (which will be released in North America on June 8) a disaster, because that would be to invest it with a power it doesn't actually possess. It's watchable, colorful and intermittently funny, but given the level of talent on display, it's reasonable to want more than that.

Here's my theory about heist movies: The simpler, the better. Danny and his boys are seeking to destroy Trump-esque villain Willy Banks (Pacino) and his horrible postmodern-architecture casino in so many different and complicated ways that I couldn't keep track of it all. There's the giant boring machine tunneling under the building, there are pit bosses to bribe and loaded dice to sneak in and slot machines to jury-rig and artificial-intelligence computers to hornswoggle and unbreakable diamond vaults to drill through and heroin-sniffing Komodo dragons to train. (OK, some of that I made up.) But I literally couldn't keep track of it all, and despite the good cheer and bright colors, this picture has a relentless, schematic quality that gets dull fast.

As the press conference ended, a Korean woman dove from the audience onto the conference table, bearing stuffed animals for the cast to sign. (Clooney signed his before she was hustled away.) Clooney, Pitt, Damon and their buddies somehow got out of the building through the mayhem. Now, with the heat of the sweltering day finally giving way to evening, they have donned "le smoking" (that's the amusing French word for tuxedo) and begun to arrive on the red carpet for the "Ocean's Thirteen" premiere, in some sense the marquee event of this entire festival. (As I write this, I'm probably 200 yards away in the press room, and the crowd noise from the street is almost deafening.)

As soon as tonight's screening (and the ensuing all-night parties) are over, insider conversations in the press room will switch back to this year's Palme d'Or chase, which features a wide-open field with several promising entries still to come. (The festival concludes on Sunday night.) There are at least three leading contenders: Julian Schnabel's remarkable "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about a paralyzed man's personal metamorphosis (my personal favorite); Joel and Ethan Coen's existential crime thriller "No Country for Old Men"; and Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." There's an unlikely prospect sneaking up on the outside, and it's bound for sleeper-hit status all over the world: the charming black-and-white animated version of Marjane Satrapi's best-selling graphic novel "Persepolis."

There are things every visitor to Cannes needs to see at least once. A would-be starlet in a leather minidress, sprawled out on the sidewalk of the Croisette with a broken stiletto heel, a bad case of dehydration and a possible head injury. A toadlike man in his 60s, stuffed into a tuxedo and accompanied by an alarmingly tan Scandinavian model a foot taller than himself. Moderately famous people you don't immediately recognize because they're ordering oysters or reading the paper. You need to see Catherine Deneuve.

Well, I had my Catherine Deneuve moment in spades. It's one thing to understand that the 63-year-old goddess of French cinema has been to Cannes, as she says, "at least 25 times, more than I can count, really," and that she must know the hotels and restaurants of this town the way some of us know the food court at the mall on Route 138. It's another thing when she walks into the restaurant where you are, sets her pack of Philip Morris Slims on your table, and sits down right next to you.

She was dressed in impeccable upper-class Parisian style, in a sheer brown chemise and a dark knee-length skirt, and she carried a large black handbag. (You somehow don't consider the fact that Catherine Deneuve needs to haul around Kleenex and eye drops and some really, really expensive cosmetics.) And of course she has that Continental thing going on: She looks exactly her age, no younger. If she's had any surgery, it's been very subtle. She has visible wrinkles on her face, and age spots on her arms. She has gained a little weight. But she's still Catherine Deneuve, and the crowded, raucous restaurant silently parted, Red Sea-style, as she moved through it.

"You don't mind if I smoke," she said after she had seated herself. It struck me as a declarative sentence, not a question. (If my wife wants to know why my clothes smell of cigarettes, I'll have the best ever response.) Deneuve was actually sitting at my table to discuss her voice-over role as the heroine's mother in "Persepolis," which follows the young Satrapi from her Westernized girlhood in Iran through an awkward and painful adolescence at boarding school in Vienna to a paradoxically Iranian womanhood that has mostly been spent in Europe.

While the version of "Persepolis" that premiered here on Wednesday is voiced in French, Deneuve will repeat her role for an English-language version that will also feature Satrapi as herself and Gena Rowlands as her memorable grandmother (a role wonderfully handled by Danielle Darrieux in French). I only hope Satrapi can sing "Eye of the Tiger" in as dazzlingly atonal a fashion as Chiara Mastroianni does in the French version. For many Cannes viewers, the hilarious Iranian-aerobics dance segment in which that happens is going to be the most treasured screen moment they bring home.

As Satrapi's readers already know, her story is simultaneously universal and specific. In living through the Islamic revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and a painful emigration, she epitomizes all kinds of cultural and political themes. At the same time young Marjane is a recognizable girl of the late 20th century, caught up in politics or religion at one moment, and at the next obsessed with Abba or Iron Maiden or a crush that she deems "the man of my life" (at least until he turns out to be gay). Of course her books helped demonstrate that Iran was a complex and diverse society, but they also contained a story of adolescence, depression and the quest for selfhood that transcended those issues.

Working with French undeground-comics artist Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi has replicated the stripped-down, "Peanuts"-simple style of her published work on the screen. Bracketed by color segments, in which the adult Marjane decides whether to return from Paris to Tehran, most of the film has an elegant, shadowed feeling reminiscent of charcoal drawings or pencil sketches. Satrapi and Paronnaud move effortlessly from whimsy to darkness and back again: When Marjane has nightly conversations with God and Karl Marx, they appear as jovial caricatures in the clouds; but the Iran-Iraq war, in which a million people died and small boys were sent unarmed to the battlefield, is represented by a few symbolic cut-out figures.

Asked whether she knew much about the situation in Iran before taking the part as Marjane's mother, Deneuve replied: "Of course. We have newspapers here in France. And in America too. But I don't know: In deepest America, do they even have newspapers? Do they even know where Iran is on the map?" I thought it might be best to treat those questions as rhetorical, and we moved on to the topic of Cannes itself. "There are always mixed feelings you have in Cannes," she said, "a lot of highs and lows, ups and downs. I am so pleased about this film. Marjane is a special person and it was an incredible crew."

Still, the jewel of the Riviera isn't what it once was, she says. "There is too much media now," she said (and it was not clear that present company was excluded). "Too much, how do you say it, sponsorship. Too much commercial stuff. I don't mind Hollywood, I don't mind glamour. That is all right. But we have these things now like People magazine, that are just not terribly interesting."

I was profoundly glad that I don't work at People magazine. When Satrapi and Deneuve exchanged Parisian-style kisses and changed tables, the author and co-director had her own message for the media: Stop writing stories about her mini-contretemps with the Iranian government. Reportedly, the Iranian film agency has delivered a letter to the French embassy complaining that "Persepolis" presents a distorted picture of the Islamic revolution -- and also complaining about the lack of Iranian films at Cannes this year (which may be closer to a legitimate grievance).

Asked if she feels endangered by opprobrium from the Islamic world, Satrapi said she didn't. "But if you guys keep writing about this, I might become in danger," she added. "It isn't like anybody started a war or anything. They wrote a letter! It was nothing. It is strictly not a big deal, and the only thing making it a big deal is all the media attention."

As Deneuve told us, "Persepolis" is a "strongly political work," and Cannes is very often an arena for political spectacle. Whether this film's acerbic attitude toward both the zealotry of Iran and the empty materialism of the West will capture the attention of Stephen Frears and the rest of the Palme d'Or jury is anyone's guess. For her part, Satrapi wants the attention to be on her film's deceptively modest artistic accomplishment, and on the improbable, inspirational triumph of that mopey teenager who grew up to create it. Eventually, it will be.

Everyone got up from the tables to go out into the sweltering streets, but as I packed my notebook and rose, I realized I was not alone at the table. There it was, on a chair: Catherine Deneuve's handbag. I dug for the word in my mind, and I think it's just "sac." Was I really going to bring it to a waiter and say, "C'est le sac de Madame Deneuve"? Was I going to run out onto the street, with Catherine Deneuve's purse in my hand? I didn't have to. She remembered it and reappeared, slicing silently through the crowd one more time. She picked it up, smiled at me with icy, absent cordiality, as she has smiled thousands of times at thousands of other reporters, and moved off toward the dessert buffet.

* * * * For more coverage of the Cannes Film Festival, click here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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