The star of The Artist Bérénice Bejo did not believe for one moment that she would have the opportunity to appear in the first French film by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi who made the Oscar-winning A Separation.
Marion Cotillard had been mooted for one of the most sought-after roles of the year in The Past (Le Passé) to be presented in the Cannes Film Festival’s competition this Friday (17 May). Although she had met Farhadi several times when they were in the States on Oscar duty last year she learned that he had thought she was more American than French.
Bejo tells me she was “never more excited” than when the director agreed to meet her – and thereafter she learned she had got the role and was sent the script. Back in Paris she immersed herself in Farhadi’s rigorous regime – two months of rehearsal followed by a 16-week shoot.
“The rehearsals were like the preparations for a theatre piece. We started with physical exercises and we danced, shouted and ran around – including Asghar,” says Bejo. The director filmed the rehearsals and then screened them the same evening, giving the actors precise observations and directions. “For him cinema is like making something in a laboratory and it takes a lot of time,” she says. The lengthy process was the main reason that Marion Cotillard dropped out of the project.
During the shoot Farhadi choreographed each scene and demonstrated each movement to his actors. He only shot one page of the script a day.
The Past tells of a family crisis around a protracted divorce. Marie (Bejo) summons her husband Ahmad to Teheran to sort out their situation. She is trying to rebuild her life with Samir but her troubled adolescent daughter Lucie does not like the idea and tries to undermine her. Revelations explode around them as Farhadi dissects the relationships.
It is one of 20 titles vying for the Palme d’Or to be decided by a jury under the stewardship of Steven Spielberg, whose presence had been courted over the years but only now has he been able to find space in his schedule. The prizes will be announced on the final day, 26 May.
"The films that are selected must really give the feeling that they deserve to be here," festival director Thierry Fremaux says, explaining how tough it can be to whittle down the selection.
"The festival reflects the state of cinema and, in general, the state of cinema speaks to the state of the world."
There were no doubts, of course, about the inclusion of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann as the gala opening out of competition tomorrow night (15th) whose exposé of glamour and appearances has all kinds of resonances with the film festival itself not least at the sumptuously planned after-party. Gatsby Le Magnifique as the French call it rolls out here and elsewhere the day after its Riviera launch.
Cannes nearly triples in population during the 12-day festival to 200,000, not only because of all the screenings but also due to the international film market where at least 10,000 participants from more than 100 countries will haggle over the rights to around 4200 films, many of them still in production. A posse of 5000 journalists, tv crews and photographers add to the crush.
Personalities expected to face a phalanx of flash bulbs along the red carpet include Gatsby's Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling, Emma Watson, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Winding Refn, Paolo Sorrentino, Alexander Payne, Joel and Ethan Coen, François Ozon, Takashi Miike, Hirokazu Kore-eda, James Gray, and Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan. After last year’s rain-splattered event the sun looks set to shine at least for the first few days.