During the final days of the Cannes Film Festival sales agents and producers abandon business meetings and renege on deals; directors and stars of poorly received films swallow their pride and slip away discreetly in limos; freelance critics file their copy and save their dwindling funds for the next stop on the film festival merry-go-round. Only the judges and those in contention for a prize look at all healthy as even the hardiest souls take on a liverish hue and throw in the towel.
Not Richard Barnet though. Now nudging seventy this dedicated cineaste would continue staunchly to the very end. His linen suits were crumpled beyond decency, his white tux and velvet bowties desecrated with the livid stains of countless receptions and launch parties, but he’d present himself with boundless optimism at as many screenings as he could squeeze into the day, often with a canapé in one hand and a Benson & Hedges in the other.
This year however had been different — he was having trouble with his lungs and had become incontinent. Neither your nose nor your ears would thank you for a seat next to him for a four hour Béla Tarr screening. But he stuck religiously to his heavily annotated programme guide and soldiered on until the penultimate day when he was found slumped forward in his chair after a 10pm screening of Seventh Heaven in the Frank Borzage retrospective. The front of house manager got him an ambulance to the casualty unit at Cannes Hospital but word of Richard’s ill health didn’t really start to circulate until most of the British contingent were already on their way to the airport or off on the train. Those still packing up their market stands presumed one of his old friends had stepped in and was looking after him.
When the news got back to London that Richard was alone in Cannes in intensive care, emails started to fly between the British Council and the New Perspective, who were his primary employers, about what was to be done. They decided that funds should be found to send a reliable and friendly face back to Cannes to make sure Richard was being taken care of and safely transported home when and if he was well enough.
The only vaguely suitable candidate who was ready to pack a suitcase at short notice turned out to be Claude Ascot. He was a few years older than Richard, had worked in the business in numerous guises for many years and was what the French call an animateur. Claude once had a reputation for volatility but had mellowed over the years. His rotund figure, clad invariably in deluxe fabrics from Jermyn Street, was a familiar sight around Cannes and he was exceptionally good at getting things done by people, until he fell out with them that is. It was hoped that he wouldn’t outstay his welcome on this occasion.
Claude arrived in Cannes the next afternoon and checked into a modest hotel on the Rue Meynadier not too far from the railway station. He unpacked, took a nap and later fortified himself with a light dish of loup de mer followed by fresh strawberries, and a carafe of rosé at one of his old haunts in the Souquet. He shared a few words with the patron over his meal and made a plan of action for the next day before returning to his hotel to turn in for the night.
The next morning Claude finished off two crèmes and a large pain au chocolate as he flicked through his emails and call list then made his way up along the Avenue des Broussailles to Cannes Hospital and made enquiries. His French was more than adequate but when he finally got to see the consultant who was responsible for Richard he had to get out a notebook and write down a list of medical terms to look up on his laptop later. Dr Victor Bernoud was younger than Claude expected but courteous and conscientious. Richard’s condition was very poor, and it appeared that he had been ill for quite some time.
He kept that to himself said Claude, but then that was Richard. He’d share the most marvellous film riches with you but not his personal details, probably because seeing films was his life. Oh and the highly prized list of contacts who got him in to see the most fought over screenings he absolutely refused to divulge. For the moment though he was heavily sedated and unable to say anything. Dr Bernoud explained that the sedation allowed his body the best chance to fight back without distraction and that his condition had, at least for the time being, stabilised.
Claude took himself to a café on the Croisette for a light lunch of soupe pistou and crusty pain de compagne followed by tarte abricot and looked at his To Do list. First he sent a brief email back to London to give everyone an update on Richard’s condition and to let them know that he’d be staying for at least a few days. This was approved and further funds were forwarded to pay his per diems. Then he texted his wife Hester to explain the situation and promised to call later. Richard was ever the loner but it struck Claude that he had a housekeeper and that she should be kept in the picture. So he gave Richard’s home number a ring on the off chance and ended up having quite a chat with her. I begged him not to go said Mrs Lewis. But you know how he is, he has to be sat there in the front row for everything. She explained that Richard’s health had gone downhill quite rapidly in the past couple of weeks but that he refused to listen to his doctor’s advice to avoid travel and cut down his smoking. The tantrums we had she said. You’re an old friend of his so I can say this but really he’s like a child a lot of the time and the sheets I’ve had to change, no thanks though, he became quite abusive.
Claude reflected on how different Richard’s life and his were. He had Hester — the Alma to his Alfred – and three grown children, the collies, the house in Belsize Park and the cottage in Suffolk. Maybe films were the only thing they had in common. Then he thought about their careers, Peter, ever the self-contained writer-researcher unwilling to take on any responsibilities that might detain him from the divine celluloid, whereas he, Claude had taken on no end of grand cultural escapades from opening cinemas, producing films and initiating festivals, he prided himself on being a showman of the old school. He’d at least tried to follow the path of his heroes, buccaneers like Langlois, Melville and Welles.
After lunch he made his way to the offices at the Palais des Festival to find out who was still around and see what assistance they might offer. Gilles Jacob, Thierry Fremaux and Christian Jeune had already left for meetings with the Studios in Los Angeles to talk about next year’s festival, so Claude reacquainted himself with a couple of their deputies. He’d been going to Cannes on and off for over forty years and had become nominally part of the Festival’s extended family and would be offered considerable privileges. A care package for Richard was promptly dispatched to the hospital, containing interesting promotional items, books, DVDs, a signed get well soon card and a huge bouquet. Richard would appreciate the personal recognition when he finally came round. And of course Claude was also offered the use of a desk and encouraged to use whatever facilities he needed.
Claude told himself he’d made a very good start indeed and though no fan of hospital waiting rooms he decided this assignment would not be too onerous. Nothing changed in Richard’s condition for the next couple of days and Claude fell into a not unpleasant routine in which there was time enough for him to keep up with his own personal projects back home. He was missing Hester and the dogs though and made sure he saw her face to face on the computer screen every evening. He talked to her about joining him in Cannes but with two new grandchildren to assist with it wasn’t really possible.
By the end of the week he was running out of things to do. He’d been photographing all the latest cine-related murals dotted around town, recorded the vast film hoardings on the hotels as they were dismantled, including a glorious image of Nigel Void as a four-eared intergalactic demigod in a forthcoming science fiction film. He’d dined at Le Petit Lardon, popped into now abandoned boozy late-night Anglo haunts like the Petit Carlton and shuffled through the stalls at the twice weekly brocante at the flower market. He thought of nipping over to the island but that was something better done with good lively company, then the Chateau at Mandelieu La Napoule popped into his head and he was taken all the way back to his very first visit to Cannes in the early 1960s.
He’d run his college’s film society and after coming down from Oxford saw as many films as he could at cinemas like The Everyman and The Academy but he wasn’t satisfied and came up with the idea of acquiring the distribution rights to a couple of exciting films by new directors at Cannes that year which he’d convince exhibitors to show. He, Hester and three friends piled into two borrowed sports cars and drove all the way down to the Riviera. Their youth and enthusiasm proved attractive and word of their gallant quest spread far enough to get them meetings and into screenings. Claude acted like it was the most natural thing in the world when he signed a deal with a modest advance for Adieu Philippine by the promising new French director, Jacques Rozier. Shortly after they returned to London the deal fell through but by then Claude was so involved in his efforts to produce his own British new wave film that he wasn’t too put out.
A large group of new friends congregated that night and when conversation came around to Bunuel one of the party mentioned he had a 16mm copy of Chien Andalou and a projector in the boot of his car. I know exactly the place to show it said another. The owner of the restaurant they were in offered them four large white table clothes to project the film on and a merry party departed for Mandalieu La Napoule. In the shadow of the gloriously eccentric chateau there was singing and dancing on the beach, and a bit of a scene when Sabine, a beautiful cellist coaxed a boxer she’d nicknamed Achtou! into sparring with her and ended up with an accidental split lip. The boxer was so mortified he threw himself in the sea and had to be dragged back up onto the beach. The film was projected for an intoxicated audience on the makeshift, stapled tablecloth screen which they nailed to the walls of the chateau. Claude lay on the beach with his head in Hester’s lap while an aspiring local artist told them all about the rich artistic American couple, Henry and Marie Clews who spent 17 years restoring the dilapidated building, incrusting its surfaces with carvings of mythical beasts and adding turrets, ramparts and grand ornate gardens until it became a splendid and surreal gothic triumph. One of the great Cannes nights, Claude thought and almost my very first.
Claude hired a taxi to drive him along the Boulevard Midi to the Chateau that afternoon. The renovation had continued over the years and the building was now home to an artistic foundation. He wandered around its imposing chambers and admired the high vaulted ceilings and exquisite craftsmanship that sang out from every corner. He snatched a pisaladiere from a kiosk on his way to the hospital late that afternoon. He was in an agreeable frame of mind and sat quietly with Richard. Dr Bernoud dropped in briefly and told him that Richard’s medication would be reduced in the morning and he would hopefully regain consciousness so they could carry out a further assessment of his condition but he insisted that Claude should not raise his expectations, the patient was extremely ill.
Sure enough the next day Richard opened his eyes around mid-day and smiled at Claude. Good to see you old friend he said, do you think one might get a bite to eat here, I’m famished. Claude produced a small wicker basket with bread, cheese, ham, a slab of clafoutis and a bottle of rosé. Best tuck into this before the nurse finds out, he said. Richard’s IV stand shuddered as he pressed a piece of bread spread with brie between his lips then took a sip of his drink.
The nurses tutted when they saw Richard’s picnic then smiled indulgently as he finished off his snack and eased back onto his pillows. You must go now they told Claude, Mr Richard has many tests this afternoon and will need rest this evening. Come back tomorrow at the same time and Dr Bernoud will be here.
The news the next day was no better than Claude had predicted. Your friend has made some recovery but this is only temporary and in my opinion he would not survive the trip back to England, said Dr Bernoud. We can make him comfortable here in our hospice but he has very little time. When Claude went onto Richard’s ward he realised at once that the patient knew exactly the situation he was in.
There are worse places to be said Richard and one can’t complain about such generous helpings of morphine. How long have you known asked Claude. About a month ago I guessed I was on the way out but I knew I had time for one more trip here. Why do you think I was escaping into Seventh Heaven for a final time he said and smiled. If that’s the case then you will go out in style my friend said Claude any request just name it. A last picture show would entirely suffice Richard replied. I don’t think we can get you back to a cinema said Claude but what about a screening here on the ward? I’ll see what I can rustle up for you, do you have anything in mind? Oh another Borzage or a Wilder would be capital said Richard.
Claude spent the next day racing around the Festival offices finding out what they held in their archives and was given considerable assistance by Ciara Massot, the head of Cannes Classics. The Borzages had already departed and the Wilders were out on loan. They were all on 35mm anyway and Claude’s hope of hunting down a portable 35mm projector from a local film society or a school — maybe Chinese, or even one of those old models the US military used for GI screenings — did not work out. Sitting with Florian and Myriam, two of the young festival administrators he looked for alternatives. And eventually they offered a solution. There is a 16mm copy of A Matter of Life and Death at the Cinématheque de Marseille which they’ve already taken the liberty of putting on the train to us. They say it is in excellent condition and they are honoured to provide it. We also have a very good 16mm projector which I would be happy run for you, said Florian. And you know given the size of the ward and the throw, the images will be of exceptional quality. It was agreed and Claude returned to the hospital with his good news.
No Borzage or Wilder I’m afraid but we do have a Powell and Pressburger in pristine condition. And the title asked Richard. Well excuse the gallows humour but A Matter of Life and Death, Claude replied. Blimp would have been first choice said Richard but really one couldn’t go out on a better screening than this and as you know Powell was both an Englishman and a native of the Riviera so there’s some symmetry here.
A dozen Festival staff turned up that evening to transform the ward into a cinema auditorium. Patients considered too infirm were whisked away into side wards or private rooms and those few that remained lined up in a single row of hospital beds. Behind them on a makeshift dias was the projector with Florian in charge of the screening and before them stood a decent size screen. Gorgeous, mouthwatering party food was consumed by those patients who were able, accompanied by flutes of champagne. Final adjustments were made, then the lights were dropped after Dr Bernoud took his seat.
The reassuring thud of arrows hitting a target graced the screen and the film began. Claude’s focus was all on Richard who was sitting propped up by his side but within minutes Powell and Pressberger worked their magic and Claude was captivated by their extravagant fantasy.
There was David Niven as the courageous English bomber pilot, Peter D Carter, once again falling in love with the voice of Kim Hunter’s American radio controller June, as his plane went down in flames, and him somehow cheating death. Richard grinned at Marius Goring, the arch French Conductor 71, as he arrived to explain to Peter that there had been a celestial cock-up, and winced when he mentioned that there was no Technicolor in heaven. But it was Roger Livesey as the local GP who keeps an eye on his fellow villagers through his camera obscura with whom Richard most identified. He savoured Dr Reeves’s realization that Peter’s hallucinations were caused by a brain injury then, just over halfway in, he cleared his throat and stared fiercely at the unfolding drama. Summoning up all his remaining strength Richard rose up from his sheets and propelled himself at the screen. He felt himself transported across the ward towards the dazzling dancing images and was enveloped by the scent of freshly cut roses as he landed feet first on a vast ascending staircase to heaven. Bugger, he said to himself, as David Niven ran past him back down the stairs, they’ve put two of the reels in the wrong order.
Claude heard a clank as Richard’s IV stand toppled over. He turned back to see his old friend lying stiff on the bed, his open eyes fixed in an expression of intense curiosity. As a nurse righted the IV stand Claude motioned to Florian to keep the film rolling and texted into his phone, “Roll the credits, Richard just left.”
© 2016 John Mount
John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.