Cannes di­rect

In town to plug what he says is his last film, 25-time Cannes vet­eran John Boor­man takes Don­ald Clarke on a four-decade Riviera reverie, and re­veals a few long-kept fes­ti­val se­crets along the way

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‘Iwas first at Cannes in 1970,” John Boor­man rem­i­nisces. “Since then I have been back maybe 25 times. “I have had films in com­pe­ti­tion. I have had films out of com­pe­ti­tion. I have been on the jury a cou­ple of times. It has been very much part of my life.”

It’s true enough. There is no bet­ter man to pon­der the Cannes ex­pe­ri­ence than Boor­man. Now 81, he has won the best di­rec­tor prize at the fes­ti­val on two oc­ca­sions – for Leo the Last and The Gen­eral – and, in 1981, re­ceived a Best Artis­tic Con­tri­bu­tion ci­ta­tion for Ex­cal­ibur. They like him here and he likes them.

This year, Boor­man’s Queen and Coun­try, a kind of se­quel to 1987’s Hope and Glory, plays in the pres­ti­gious Di­rec­tors’ Fort­night strand. He has threat­ened to re­tire (though some back­track­ing will be done later in this con­ver­sa­tion) and, if this re­ally is his last time at Cannes, then there is a neat­ness to the ex­pe­ri­ence. In 1970, fol­low­ing up Hell in the Pa­cific and Point Black, the young Bri­tish film-maker se­cured a place in the main com­pe­ti­tion with the an­gu­lar satire Leo the Last. That film starred Mar­cello Mas­troianni, the great Ital­ian ac­tor, whose face, with de­li­cious serendip­ity, adorns the 2014 Cannes poster that cur­rently oc­cu­pies ev­ery flat sur­face.

“Yes, that’s right. That’s right,” he says. “I loved that man. He was a won­der­ful, charm­ing man. He was like a fac­tory worker. He would come in on the morn­ing, you’d turn on the cam­era, he’d put on the cos­tume and you’d shoot all day. When the whis­tle blew at six he’d get into his own clothes and never think about the film un­til the fol­low­ing morn­ing.”

A char­ac­ter­is­tic chuckle rises in the Boor­man throat.

“He was al­ways in a love af­fair. But ev­ery day, with­out fail, he would phone his wife. He was as de­voted to her as he was to all his lovers.”

John Boor­man has al­ways had a good way with an anec­dote. Then again, he’s ac­cu­mu­lated plenty of fine ma­te­rial down through the years. Af­ter start­ing out in TV doc­u­men­taries, he be­gan his fea­ture ca­reer with a barmy –but still watch­able – com­edy star­ring the Dave Clark Five en­ti­tled Catch Us If You Can. Then came the peer­less US thriller Point Blank, star­ring his great friend Lee Marvin, and, bring­ing Marvin to­gether with Toshiro Mi­fune, the tense Hell in the Pa­cific. The jour­ney con­tin­ued with De­liv­er­ance, Ex­cal­ibur and

The Gen­eral. Along the way, Boor­man moved to Wick­low and be­came an or­na­ment of our own na­tion. Co-pro­duced by the Ir­ish Film Board,

Queen and Coun­try takes us back to his time serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army dur­ing the Korean War. Like Hope and Glory, which dealt with life dur­ing the Blitz, the film is awash with au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal flour­ishes.

“It was a weird pe­riod – the 1950s,” he says. “Ra­tioning was still go­ing on. It was a bleak pe­riod. But Bri­tain still had all these gar­risons that had to be manned: Kenya, Cairo, Ger­many. We got by on hu­mour. I was a lit­tle con­cerned about the char­ac­ters be­ing so close to the real thing. I am just hop­ing they have all died and that they can’t sue me. Ha ha!”

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing how close the Swing­ing Six­ties (which only swung for a se­lect few) were to the grim years that pre­ceded the Fes­ti­val of Bri­tain. What a plea­sure it must have been to emerge from all that fug, plunge into the buzzing con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous film world and, ul­ti­mately, make it to Cannes as the era was grind­ing to a halt. How has the fes­ti­val changed since then?

“It was much more mod­est at that time,” he says. “The grand hall had not been built. It’s got a lit­tle pompous and grand then. But it adds grav­i­tas which didn’t ex­ist at that time. It was just a smaller event. Then it grew and grew. It’s mad­ness now.”

Of course, Boor­man has ex­pe­ri­ence on both sides of the fence. In 1992, he served on the main jury un­der the pres­i­dency of one Gérard Depar­dieu. Also on the squad that year were Jamie Lee Cur­tis and Pe­dro Almod­ó­var. I as­sume, when it comes to de­tails of the de­lib­er­a­tions, that he is sworn to eter­nal se­crecy. I won­der if Depar­dieu was a harsh mas­ter or if he tended to­wards the lais­sez-faire.

“I think lais­sez-faire is the right phrase,” he laughs. “At eight o’clock in the morn­ing, the screen­ing lights went down and he would fall asleep. As you might imag­ine, the snores got quite loud. My job was to wake him up. He was won­der­ful, of course.” Were there fights in the jury cham­bers? “What hap­pens to jurors is that they live in this bub­ble,” he re­mem­bers. “They can’t re­ally con­nect, so they be­come in­tro­verted and in­ward look­ing. Things get dis­torted. Very of­ten there’s a di­vide be­tween the two best films. Half go one way and half go the other. There’s a fight and very of­ten a third film wins. It’s a democ­racy and democ­racy is a very im­paired sys­tem.”

In­ter­est­ing. In that year, Bille Au­gust’s Best In­ten­tions, a re­spectable choice, edged out pic­tures such as Vic­tor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun and Robert Alt­man’s The

Player. Is Boor­man sug­gest­ing that the Palme d’Or win­ner was some­thing of a com­pro­mise? “Yes. I think you could say that.” Other mys­ter­ies need to be re­vealed. The fes­ti­val stretches over 10 long busy days. Yet, even if their film screened a week be­fore the clos­ing cer­e­mony, the win­ners al­ways seem to be at the podium when the gongs are handed out. Some sort of se­cret mes­sage is ob­vi­ously trans­mit­ted through the cin­e­matic ether.

“I was there when we won for The Gen­eral,” he says. “I also got that prize for the Mas­troian- ni film. I was there with Brendan Glee­son and then we went home. They phone you up and say: ‘You’re get­ting a prize,’ but they don’t tell you what it is. I asked: ‘Is it a ma­jor prize or a mi­nor prize?’ They said it was a ma­jor prize, so I said I’d come. I got caught that way be­fore.”

He is re­fer­ring to Ex­cal­ibur, we as­sume.

“I was a vic­tim of that com­pro­mise thing,” he says. “It got a prize for best ‘artis­tic con­tri­bu­tion’ or some bloody thing. That’s like a pat on the head rather than a prize.”

Boor­man is one of sev­eral Bri­tish vet­er­ans screen­ing films this year. Over at the main com­pe­ti­tion, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both for­mer Palme d’Or win­ners, will be bat­tling it out with, re­spec­tively, Mr

Turner and Jimmy’s Hall. There’s his­tory here, I imag­ine.

“In­ter­est­ingly enough, Ken had a film, Kes, here in 1970. We were both there then and now here we are as these de­crepit film di­rec­tors.” Now, in­ter­est­ingly, Loach sug­gested that

Jimmy’s Hall might be his last film, but, in re­cent in­ter­views, he has backed away from that state­ment. Could Queen and Coun­try re­ally be the last-ever John Boor­man film?

“Well, I cer­tainly said it would be when I was mak­ing it,” he says. “The idea of mak­ing an­other was so ex­haust­ing. But one is tempted. But there are a few things I’d like to do. We’ll see how it goes.”

See The Ir­ish Times for daily cov­er­age from Cannes, plus irish­times.com/cul­ture and Don­ald Clarke’s Screen­writer blog

Queen and Coun­try (2014)

Leo the Last (1970)

The Gen­eral (1998)

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