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From the Archives: Conquering Cannes – Alexander Payne’s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson at Cannes



From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, –Alexander Payne‘s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Press accounts of Alexander Payne’s conquest of the Cannes Film Festival, where his new film About Schmidt created a buzz in the main competition, have largely focused on the film losing out on any awards or on the critical hosannas directed toward him and his star, Jack Nicholson.

But, as Payne noted during a recent Omaha visit, Cannes is a phantasmagorical orgy of the senses that cannot be reduced to mere prizes or plaudits. It is at once an adoring celebration of cinema, a crass commercial venue and a sophisticated cultural showcase. It is where the French bacchanal and bistro sensibilities converge in one grand gesture for that most democratic art form — the movies. Only a satirist like Payne can take the full, surreal measure of Cannes and expose it for all its profundity and profanity.

“I likened it to the body of super model Gisel (Bundchen),” he said, “which is extraordinarily beautiful and draped in the most elegant clothes on the planet, yet, also possesses…bile and all sorts of fetid humors inside of it. The festival is all of those things. I mean, one thing is the elegance — the red carpet, the beautiful tuxes and gowns, the fabulous beach parties and all that stuff. Another thing is the best filmmakers in the world showing work there.

“And still another side is the marketplace, which is like a bazaar, with people talking about how many videocassette units your film’s going to sell in Indonesia. It’s that kind of sordid marketplace that gives cinema its vitality. And you can’t have the cinema body without all of it. So, it’s really like a beautiful woman. It’s extraordinary to look at from the outside, but once you cut it and look inside, you could throw up.”

He said the confluence of glitz, glamour and garishness reminded him of Las Vegas. “It’s all kind of Vegasy. You see really elegant things and you see really tacky things, which I liked. I was in such a good mood, that I just loved everything.”

So, what do you do for an encore when your third feature film makes a splash at the mecca of world cinema? Well, if you’re riding a wave of success like Alexander Payne, your hot new film is next chosen to open the New York Film Festival (NYFF), September 27 through October 13, at Lincoln Center. “It’s an honor,” he said regarding Schmidt’s recently announced selection to open the Big Apple event. “That will keep the awareness of the film afloat. A lot of the New York press and international press and kind of the tastemaker-types will see it, I’m told.”

To be accepted as an opening night feature there, a film must be making its North American premiere, which forced New Line Cinema to decline invitations for Schmidt to play other major festivals on the continent, including those in Toronto and Telluride. No matter. The word-of-mouth momentum attached to Schmidt from its Cannes screenings is so strong that early industry patter is already positioning the film as an award-contending late fall release.

For the filmmaker, Cannes (May 15-26) marked a milestone in a still young career whose sky-is-the-limit ceiling has his work being compared to and his name being mentioned with the most celebrated cinema artists in the world today. An indication of his growing stature is the fact that during a recent Omaha visit he was shadowed by a New York Times reporter preparing a major profile on him. He fully recognizes, too, what Cannes means for his reputation, although the sardonic Payne points out the absurdity attending such puffery.

“It was a huge honor just to be there…and it’s a nice stepping-stone,” he said.. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s bigger than being nominated for an Oscar (he and writing partner Jim Taylor earned Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Election) because it’s international. It’s also really political and full of bullshit to some degree, but what isn’t? But given that reality of the world, it’s still about pure love of cinema, not Hollywood people slapping each other on the back and awarding movies like A Beautiful Mind. Ugh.”


Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Payne and Nicholson mugging for the Cannes paparazzi

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