“These look like two gentlemen waiting to give me money,” Alec Baldwin whispers to his pal James Toback as they approach a pair of businessmen at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. They have come to the world’s largest movie market in hopes of raising money for a loose remake of Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s supercharged sex drama that starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. The new film, set in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, might be called Last Tango in Tikrit; it is to star Baldwin as a CIA officer — more or less the Brando role — and Neve Campbell as a left-wing journalist who gets down and dirty with him.
The phalanx of film critics, who review the artistically ambitious films in competition, and the celebrity reporters, angling for five minutes with Leo DiCaprio, are all missing the crucial point made by Toback’s splendidly raffish documentary Seduced and Abandoned: that Cannes is really about money, and the biggest deals are not for a Palme d’Or winner like last year’s Amour but for hundreds of action pictures, cut-rate space epics and horror-thons — in other words, movies. There’s a reason it’s called show business. Every businessman here is looking for a movie that will reach profit, not win the Gotham Film Award. Producer Avi Lerner ascends to magnificent contempt when talking about the Festival’s official art films: “The only people who go are their mothers and cousins.”
W. Somerset Maugham, who lived here for years, called Cannes “a sunny place for shady people.” And, in the market, smart people, who will not easily be parted from their money. So it is not a SPOILER to say that few financiers are waiting to lavish cash on the film pitched by Baldwin, the TV star aching to get back big in pictures, and Toback, who in a 40-year career has been able to direct only eight scripted features and the 2008 documentary Tyson. To international plutocrats ignorant of Baldwin’s seven-year run in 30 Rock, he’s just a guy who costarred in a Cold War underwater drama, The Hunt for Red October, more than two decades ago. “More action!” one entrepreneur advises him. “More submarines!” And Baldwin is the marketable commodity on offer here. Toback is just a raconteur without a racket. So they hear a dozen variations on the word No. Many negotiations begin with “No.”
As Baldwin and Toback take meeting after meeting, the proposed budget gets lower and lower, from $40 million to $15 million to $5 million. Ever flexible, as an artist-businessman must be, Toback is soon ready to dump Campbell (star of his 2004 sex drama When Will I Be Loved) for a bigger name. They chat with Diane Kruger, who says she needs to see a script first, and Jessica Chastain, who talks about her acting career but dodges the subject. And Campbell isn’t even the biggest obstacle to the movie’s funding. Truth be told, any investor would jump at Last Tango in Tikrit if Toback were to replace his leading man with the star of three of his earlier films: Robert Downey, Jr. Or perhaps the fellow sitting across from him in Cannes: Ryan Gosling. As the actor discusses the frustrations of movie auditions, and radiates enough charisma to light the whole Croisette for a fortnight, you can figure that Toback is writing him into the script as they chat.
Another bald truth is that sex, the final frontier in the liberation of movies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, doesn’t sell any more on the big screen. (Why pay in a theater for the virtual sex you can get at home for free?) Toback films like Exposed, Two Girls and a Guy and When Will I Be Loved did not commandeer the box office. The big bucks are in action pictures made for 14-year-old boys of all ages. So chimerical is Toback’s quest that one wonders if he really intended to make Last Tango in Tikrit, or whether it was a meta-excuse to prove his belief that, as Orson Welles said, filmmakers sped 95 percent of their time trying to raise money for their movies and 5 percent actually shooting them.
Four world-class directors — Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, all Cannes veterans of four decades or more — provide insights about the business of making art. Coppola acknowledges that The Godfather was “a fluke,” and that he’s back to making movies for relative peanuts, as he did in the ’60s. Scorsese recalls that in 1976, the Cannes jury president Tennessee Williams hated Taxi Driver (which nonetheless took the Palme d’Or). Odd, Scorsese says: “I always said nice things about him.” But the biggest stars are Baldwin and Toback. Cheerful despite all the bank-vault doors slammed in their faces, they share another essential ingredient in any would-be filmmaker: blind hope.
Mammothly entertaining for insiders and fair-weather movie fans alike, Seduced and Abandoned is one of the few official choices in the main program that will not being shown in the Lumière Theatre, where fancy-dress crowds watch the competition films each evening. Instead, it’s in a tent behind the Palais. Having garnered nothing but vivid interviews last year, should Toback and Baldwin feel seduced and abandoned on their second trip to Cannes? At the very least, selected and exiled.