CANNES LOVES TO COURT—IF NOT MANUFACTURE—CONTROVERSY, as the overcooked adjectives in the press book for Lou Ye’s competition title Spring Fever, about man-man love, spying, betrayal, and triangulation, attest: “[T]he beginning of asphyxiating, sultry nights of physical abandon that exalt the senses. A sulfurous journey into the confines of jealousy and obsessive love.” Lou’s last film, Summer Palace, which unspooled at Cannes in 2006, ran afoul of Chinese censors for including plenty of XXX action and footage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, leading to the director’s being banned from making a film in China for five years. Lou shot Spring Fever clandestinely in Nanjing on DV, capturing the steamy (though genital-free) trysts between a married man and his boyfriend, sobbing breakdowns at drag shows, wrist and neck slashings, two-guys-and-a-gal frolicking, and the joys of finding the love of a good tranny. There were a few walkouts, but the response at the end of the film was notably indifferent: just the sound of a few hands clapping puncturing the stony silence—a rarity at a festival infamous for lusty booing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, not quite the sulfurous journey that Spring Fever is, kicked up a bit of a storm simply by its ultimate placement in the festival. When told by the Cannes organizers that his film—a black-and-white, Buenos Aires–set family drama between brothers, played by Alden Ehrenreich and Vincent Gallo—could be offered only an out-of-competition slot, Coppola (a two-time Palme d’Or winner, for 1974’s The Conversation and 1979’s Apocalypse Now) balked, accepting instead the invitation from Olivier Père, head of the Directors’ Fortnight, the bolder, noncompetitive alternative to Cannes, to open that program. The paternal Coppola, who appeared for a postscreening Q&A with his wife, Eleanor; his son Roman (who worked as a second-unit director on Tetro); and cast members Ehrenreich and Maribel Verdú, asked what all of us in the audience were wondering: “And where is Vincent Gallo?” Père nervously chuckled and said he was expected for the later screening. Eager to engage with his interlocutors, Coppola asked, “Is it possible, Olivier, to make a little more light? I’d like to see who I’m talking to.” But sometimes the pleasant exchanges could go only so far. When one curious spectator, who noted that the brothers in the film have a father and an uncle who are both famous composers—just like the director himself—asked how autobiographical the film is, Coppola responded cryptically: “Nothing in the story really happened. But everything is true.”