On arriving in the Côte d’Azur, and joining the crowd standing in limbo around the baggage reclaim area, I saw what all people want to see: their bag; then, what nobody wants to see – or wants anyone else to see – their bag, upside down and open.
Its contents were all over the conveyor belt, as though prefiguring a star’s bedroom the morning after lifting the Palme d’Or. My smoking jacket had one arm draped languidly over the side of the conveyor as though trailing lazy fingers in a pool, the pants, shoes, socks looking – as my mum would say – ‘just where you stepped out of them’.
Excusing my way through the crowd – whose boredom seemed mitigated a mite now, simply by not being me – and making grabs and darting runs after my stuff, I felt the humiliation of contestants on ‘It’s a Knockout’, or was it the ‘Generation Game’?
Out of the airport, the skies were darkening over the town which suggested to me 1939 all over again, a dreamy impression that lurched into sharp focus as my taxi braked for two huge tanks pulling up outside the Carlton Hotel. Even along the festive Croisette, a tank has a business-like, uncommunicative look when pointing at you, I find.
My driver though, David, who’d seen a few stunts over the years, just shook his head appreciatively and raised his cameraphone to snap with the rest of the paps as Sylvester Stallone jumped from the tank, followed by the-rest-and-the-rest of the cast of Expendables 3, making me wonder just exactly who wasn’t in it.
The tank reminded me that on the plane over, in ‘Cannes: A Potted History’, I’d discovered the competition had originally been set up to establish a festival free from the influence of fascism, just then spreading across Europe under Hitler and Mussolini, with the results seen at Venice, all too plain when Jean Renoir’s WW1 masterpiece La Grande Illusion won a prize there but was then declared ‘Cinematographic Enemy Number One’ by Goebbels. A category that could still be in play, but also a great title, to my way of thinking, for a film about that period.
A product of its time then, Cannes’ own timing was pretty off, when, on only the second day of its history, World War Two broke out. An event of course that would be the subject of hundreds of films to come, at the time – as well as everything else it meant – it meant an interruption to the Cannes project.
It recommenced a year after the war, premiering itself, so to speak, and such classics as Lost Weekend and Brief Encounter, titles evoking relevant themes of both escapism and returning realities, as prescient then as they are today.
I also thought of my mother again watching re-runs of Brief Encounter while ironing on a rainy day in Yorkshire and how very far away the intended audiences for these films were from the glamour of Bardot, topless beaches and all the attendant hysteria that was currently struggling to shine from under the rumbling skies
By the time I got down to the quayside where I was to find my boat, Sunbird, it was thundering and lightning. The beach had emptied. The gigantic advertisement billowed on the grand facades like mainsails, and only uber-sized Cameron Diaz remained scantily clad, impervious to the elements, leaning against the letter ‘T’ in the banner for SEX TAPE (a film I didn’t catch) but which surely, I thought, was blocking the harbour view of the windows it covered, and therefore their view of my boat too. A shame, as the Hunton XRS 43 is a thing worth looking at.
Perhaps it’s unfair to have seen it for the first time in such dramatic circumstances, next to the big white Wolf of Wall Street style boats, looking redundant in the downpour. The futuristic shape of the XRS, black against the flash of lilac-coloured lightning, gave an impression of chafing at the moorings. Next to the floating motels it was a boat which could still be seen as a boat – a boat that laughs at mere ‘chop’.
The captain, Bruno, a good looking guy with dark hair and a tan, came up from the cabin, greeting me with a hand above his head and a wincing glance at the sky. He cupped his mouth and yelled that it wasn’t good weather for sailing. ‘You don’t say, Bruno,’ I thought.
He qualified this by saying it wasn’t good for me – though the boat – he gave a dismissive gesture as though to say, ‘For the boat it was nothing.’
Perhaps losing half my luggage had made me reckless, as I threw what was left of it in the hold and told him to cast off. Minutes later I was thinking of my mother yet again – this time wondering if I’d ever see her again.
I read a quote by Hunton owner Peter Unwin which ran, ‘I absolutely love the sea and Hunton is my physical connection to it,’ and while I liked the quote, that connection was breaking so frequently as the boat took off and touched down, took off and touched down, in a kind of rhythm I associate with marlin, that I wondered if I could really apply it to this ride.
I own to a slight swell of pride – no pun intended – as we’d headed out past the boats who were turning back and whose crews seemed to look at us with a mixture of pity and admiration, and though this pride had temporarily deserted me over the white caps, it returned when I stepped ashore at Cap d’Antibes among what old sailors would have termed land-lubbers.
It was as well that XRS could handle these conditions as they persisted in a ‘Tyne, Dogger, new low’ kind of way for the next few days.
The main business of Cannes of course happens on dry land, and I was greeted on it by legendary director Steve ‘Billie Jean’ Barron (he directed Michael Jackson’s video), whose villa I was staying at and who was in Cannes to announce the timely sequel to his satire on the World Cup, Mike Basset: England Manager.
I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying the action builds to a penalty shoot-out, during which Bassett runs onto the pitch only to suffer what could be called the communal heart attack of every England fan watching.
Among Steve’s other guests at the villa were Fabrice Muamba, a one-time player for Bolton Wanderers who famously died during a match against Tottenham Hotspur – remained un-alive, as it were, for 78 minutes – before being resuscitated into a comatose state for four days.
During this time his wide Shauna was told that if he ever regained consciousness he would likely have the mental age of a two-to-four year old. Confounding his doctors and general medical history, Fabrice regained all of his previous faculties and, while he does not play football any more, he is considering a part in the new Mike Bassett film.
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo originally, Fabrice was also in Cannes as an ambassador for a Peace One Day fundraiser to benefit the region. I had the pleasure of attending this event with him and his wife, for which I had to hire replacement evening dress.
The name of the hire shop – elicited from my taxi driver – turned out to be in fact a joke shop complete with Viking helmets, feather boas and generally a lot of stuff for strippers. I got fixed up with something roughly translated as a ‘Swell’ or ‘Swank’ get-up – which it wasn’t. Fortunately the code at Cannes is notoriously lax.
Thus attired, however, I felt too constrained by my louche appearance to ask Fabrice the searching question I was sure he sick of anyway: ‘What was it like being… you know… dead?’
I knew he’d already spoken simply and eloquently about the experience resembling sleep – peaceful sleep – and I suppose there is comfort to be drawn from that, but was it dreamless, though, I wondered. And I felt the cliché questions shaping up on my lips: Was there a widening aperture of white light? Did you see anything – anyone?
Questions not dissimilar to the ones people ask you on returning from Cannes, in fact.
As an outsider to the industry with neither expectations nor objectives, I saw much evidence of both success and disappointment, but the overall sense is of aspiration, best characterised on the Croisette among the constant crowds streaming and slowing around widening circles of paparazzi in which starlets (or aspiring starlets) can be regularly seen falling into a series of flashbulb poses.
It’s difficult to know if it’s still a trace of that original glamour in the air you sense, or merely the annual attempt to rekindle it.
What is apt, though, is that Cannes should have been founded upon a coastline, as perhaps the best counterpoint is to be found out at sea, looking back at it all, like an extension of the cinematic world it screens: the famous facades, like so much cardboard scenery, the crowds thought of extras.
This anyway was my final impression, received the following morning on what would be my last trip in the XRS: returning the ‘Swells’ dinner suit to the joke shop, grabbing lunch at the table where De Niro allegedly did the deal for Taxi Driver and getting dropped off at the quay which serves Nice airport. This is without doubt the most enjoyable journey I’ve ever made to any airport ever.
As I was going home it was naturally sunny and calm, and we were able to get the XRS up to 70 knots. Describing speed, I find you soon run out of superlatives, but I can’t help it, I’m obliged to say this was exhilarating; top speed is 80, but I wasn’t that late for the plane.
We were also able to get the photos – which, as I write, I haven’t seen but which are no doubt aimed at that elemental connection with the sea distilled into Peter Unwin’s quote.
Either that or I look like the Swell still – someone on the water who knows nothing of the water. ‘Oceanographic Enemy Number One’ perhaps. I hope not, because what this boat is all about is a negotiation with your time spent in it on the sea, in which the boat itself, for all its beauty, all but disappears – as to a certain extent you do too.
Harland Miller is an artist
Bottom picture: Harland Miller (left) and Steve Barron