Entertainment & Arts

Woody Allen’s rough ride at Cannes Film Festival

Woody Allen Image copyright PA
Image caption Allen "walked into a minefield" at Cannes, according to one commentator

From tepid reviews to personal attacks, Woody Allen had a Cannes to forget. Was this the year the festival fell out of love with him?

As a general rule, the Cannes Film Festival is unfailingly generous to directors entering the autumn of their careers.

Ken Loach, 79, received a 15-minute standing ovation last week for his welfare system tale I, Daniel Blake, while William Friedkin, 80, was invited to deliver this year's celebratory cinema masterclass.

One might have thought Woody Allen, also 80, would be welcomed no less warmly, having agreed to open this year's festival with his new film Café Society.

Instead, in the words of Deadline's Peter Bart, the veteran, Oscar-winning film-maker "walked into a minefield".

Woody's woes began before he had even arrived in the south of France with the publication of an interview in The Hollywood Reporter at the beginning of May.

Relationship questioned

During the interview, writer Stephen Galloway asked Allen three times whether Soon-Yi Previn - the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow and the woman he married in 1997 - had changed him "in any way".

Allen's response was to muse instead on how he had changed her, by enabling her to get a college degree and "travel all over."

"I've been able to really make her life better," the director is quoted as saying. "I provided her with enormous opportunities."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Allen said he had provided Previn with "enormous opportunities"

Pressed by Galloway, Allen eventually conceded that Soon-Yi, while giving him "a lot of pleasure", had not changed him and that he "might be the same person I was when I was 20."

One commentator found his comments "creepy and condescending", while another suggested it showed he regarded her as "half a world away from anything like an equal partner".

The Hollywood Reporter itself came under fire from Ronan Farrow, Allen's estranged son, who accused the paper of printing "a sterling example of how not to talk about sexual assault".

In a guest column for the publication, posted online on the same day as Café Society's Cannes premiere, Farrow suggested the journal had been remiss in giving "only a parenthetical mention" to his sister Dylan's claims that Allen sexually abused her in 1992.

Allen has repeatedly denied molesting his adopted daughter, averring she was coached to make the claim by Mia Farrow in an act of revenge over his relationship with Previn.

Lukewarm reviews

On arriving in Cannes, Allen found another charge being levelled against him: that his films lacked imagination for repeatedly featuring romantic (and possibly autobiographical) relationships between an older man and a younger woman.

At a press conference for Café Society, in which a secretary played by 26-year-old Kristen Stewart is courted by an agent played by 53-year-old Steve Carell, he was asked if he had ever considered making a film in which the ages were reversed.

Allen said it was a "perfectly valid comic idea" but said he did not have "a lot of experience to draw on for material".

Image copyright Lionsgate/Amazon Studios
Image caption Café Society stars Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg

When another journalist asked about this recurring trope, the director said he had not heard the question and asked for it to be repeated.

Again, his remarks drew a withering response. "Woody Allen dodges question about his obsession with young women falling for older men by claiming he didn't hear it," declared the Daily Mail.

Some of the reviews for Café Society were lukewarm, with Vanity Fair declaring it "disjointed", "cheap-looking" and, at one point, "truly hideous".

The Guardian's critic, while more complimentary, still found its tale of thwarted romance in the 1930s "insubstantial", "unfocused" and "freighted with a pedantic nostalgia".

Apology offered

It was not a critic who made headlines the following day, however, but a French comedian called Laurent Lafitte.

In his role as master of ceremonies of the Cannes opening gala, the comic and actor made a joke that reportedly drew gasps from many in the black-tie audience.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Lafitte's joke drew gasps from many in the black-tie audience

In what was intended as a reference to Roman Polanski, wanted in California over a 1978 conviction for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, Lafitte said it was "very nice" that Allen had been "shooting so many movies in Europe, even if you are not being convicted for rape in the US".

The remark was considered so ill-judged that Thierry Fremaux, the Cannes Film Festival's director, reportedly sought Allen out afterwards to offer an apology.

At a lunch the day after from which the Hollywood Reporter was pointedly excluded, Allen was quoted as saying he had not been offended by the remark.

He was also quoted as saying he had not read his son's column, or indeed anything else that had been written about him.

Stooped and care-worn

Allen was subjected to another broadside at the festival from actress Susan Sarandon, who referred to Dylan Farrow's allegations during a talk about women in Hollywood on Sunday.

"I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don't think that's right," said the Thelma and Louise star.

"I have nothing good to say about him."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Eisenberg (right) said it was "dangerous to try people in the press"

Yet the director has not entirely been without friends during a period that has seen his personal and professional life come under intense and renewed scrutiny.

This week, for example, actor Jesse Eisenberg - who stars in Café Society and who also appeared in Allen's 2012 comedy To Rome With Love - came out in the film-maker's defence.

Speaking to the BBC, the Batman v Superman star said he was not "insensitive" to the allegations made against Allen but said it was "dangerous to try people in the press".

In person, Allen is how one expects to find him, if a little more frail, stooped and care-worn.

His mind is still sharp, though his answers to questions tend to ramble and his voice has a quavering quality that, while easily imitable, is not put on for comic effect.

"Everybody thinks I'm cynical, but I feel like I'm reflecting the real world," he says while discussing his work.

"I'm interested as a dramatist in conflict."

After the roasting he has endured over the last few weeks, he may well feel he has had all the conflict he needs.

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