Big Jew-Off at Cannes
European cineastes clash with American ironists and shlock-meisters at the film-world’s biggest hoedown
Lanzmann, who was always a stately man, is now possessed at the age of 87 of a burly physicality and a baronial presence to match his towering ego. He delivered a typically grandiose and high-minded speech about his sacred responsibility to the material left in his care; he claimed to have been mulling this film, or what to do with the hours of footage, this last mismatched section of Shoah, for three and a half decades. He spoke also of his request to the president of the festival that the film not be included in the competition but be screened instead in the prestigious hors competition program as an honorable mention. He did not elaborate on his reasons for choosing to do so, yet most everyone assumed it was because of his famed rivalry with and contempt for Steven Spielberg, who as head of this year’s jury would have been called on to make public and most likely unflattering pronouncements on the film’s quality. Leaving the screening, I ran into France’s preeminent critic of Israeli cinema, the French-Israeli academic and film critic Ariel Schweitzer. Schweitzer was as disappointed with the film as I and most everyone else was: “Lanzmann has lost his rigor,” he told me. “This film lapses into the sentimentality and pathos that he had abhorred in Spielberg. Shoah deserved to be nine and a half hours long because it was remarkable. This film is far, far too long.” Still, when Lanzmann stood up from his chair to bow, he was surrounded by hundreds from the audience who proffered him a deeply reverent standing ovation earned over a lifetime. The scene had the undeniable feeling of a final bow, and it was an undeniably moving sight.
The press conference for Daniel Noah’s Max Rose, starring Jerry Lewis (who is, intriguingly enough, Lanzmann’s exact contemporary) turned out to be even more instructive and amusing than the Coen Brothers’ press conference. The soft-spoken and bespectacled Noah directed a film based on the story of his pianist grandfather, a bereaved and misanthropic old Jew mourning the death of his wife of 65 years. After the funeral, where Lewis/Rose rejects his family and berates his son, who is played by a sympathetic Kevin Pollack, he finds a lacquered box inscribed to his wife by a mysterious Ben in 1959 on the day he was away in New York recording his only flop album (shades of Llewyn Davis). There is some bickering about the sale of his house after the family checks him into an old-age home. After his sense of the validity of his life and marriage becomes unglued, he begins experiencing nighttime hallucinations and having nighttime conversations with his deceased wife. After some minor sleuthing he seeks out and confronts his rival (played deliciously by Mort Sahl) only to be confirmed in his belief in his wife’s steadfast and unbreakable fidelity. This epiphany is the source of a radical transfiguration of his attitude toward life: He mends his ways as well as relations with his family, even going so far as to hug his son. Save for a subtle and rancorous performance turned in by Lewis, the film’s plot is fairly forgettable. A fellow critic with whom I watched the film, Yael Hirsch, the founding editor of toutelaculture.com (Paris’ answer to Time Out New York) and Parisian Jewish Gaullist aristocracy, pronounced it: “So trite, so predictable, and so Hollywood!”
Lewis treated the subsequent press conference as the latest in a long line of stand-up comedy gigs. He insulted, heckled, ignored, or pretended he did not hear every single person who asked a question. Standing up and introducing myself as the correspondent from Tablet magazine, I inquired about his thoughts on the difference between the European Jewish and American Jewish perspectives in film. The moderator assumed that I had meant Jewish humor. Lewis’ answer was a garrulous variation on “We are all human beings and humor is humor.” This was immediately followed by his now widely reported insight that women are not really capable of humor. This being Jerry Lewis in France, the inevitable followed: A French critic associated with a cultural magazine stood up to comment on France’s “special fondness for [your] films.” Lewis interrupted him: “Fondness? They kept me alive for 50 years!” The critic then continued with the “Why is Lewis huge in France?” question in intricate detail, delving into arcane particulars of the debate surrounding the “French exception,” which the moderator had to explain to a befuddled-looking Lewis, who after he got the gist of the question warned the journalist to “be careful you don’t get too highfalutin!” The spontaneous ejaculation of the enraged noble savage, a shtick which Lewis plays to perfection, seems to play to some deeply compelling need in the French (and by extension the European) psyche. It is in fact a perfect counterpoint to the over-sophisticated and lustrous grandeur, whether authentic or put-on, of the Polanskis, the Lanzmanns, and Jodorowskys.
Later that evening, at the official red-carpet premiere of the film, Lewis shambled into the theater Soixantième, on the rooftop of the Palais and the coziest and fanciest of its theaters, in a rumpled tuxedo. The audience leaped to its feet in reverent adulation, clamoring as if Jerry Lewis was the victorious Caesar returning from subjugating the Gaulish tribes. A large group of dignitaries, festival staff, flunkeys, and the actor Richard Belzer with a poodle under his armpit, swarmed around Lewis. After someone from his retinue asked what he wanted, he screamed, “I want to sit down!”—a remark that instigated merriment. When the emcee turned to him and asked if he wanted to say some words before the film began, Lewis bellowed at him: “NO! Turn on the movie, you putz!” The audience was delighted. The humiliated emcee appeared to be the most delighted of all.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.