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Sardines, trawlers and ‘sympathising a little bit with Hitler’: The agony of the press conference

Donald Clarke: At Cannes, be prepared for often humdrum occasions to turn into the most surreal and uncomfortable events

We are at the Cannes film festival. Heat. Celebrities. Rosé wine. All the things in life people pretend to like. And press conferences. What an odd thing these events are? A line of interested parties sits at a desk and tries to make something sensible out of random syllables finished off with a not always appropriate question mark?

“Make you tulip is yesterday squalid?”

The director looks puzzled. He remembers his media training and, as they usually do in such situations, answers a sensible question he hasn’t been asked.

“Well, it was obviously a challenge to work with spider monkeys. So ...”


I’m being unfair. The press conferences at this festival are usually attended by relatively sane, only occasionally self-serving journalists. True, you do get a bit of the “local questions for local people”. You can imagine the sort of thing. “Skwit Ulgut of Frisia Today. When you visited our great capital in 1999 did you sample the pickled butter?” But, for the most part, people put forward sane professional queries. Often, the memorable stuff comes afterwards. Someone belatedly takes offence. An answer is taken out of context. It is close to a decade since a colleague of mine asked a harmless question. I remember nobody noticing anything untoward. A week later, sources all over the world decided a query meant to be taken as a joke was intended seriously, and for a few days he became the internet’s chief enemy. (Obviously, I’m being vague as we don’t want to start that up again.)

For the most part, however, press conferences tick on uneventfully. The actors and directors promote their films in an environment that allows the greatest control. Follow-up questions are rare. The advantages are clear. This is the most efficient way of getting the most talent before the most journalists. If you wanted to put every scribbler here into a one-on-one interview with, say, Anya Taylor-Joy they’d all be here until Christmas.

Where else would such an odd system apply? Well, everywhere. How long has this been happening? For well over 100 years. The “press briefings” (sounds a little more formal) by government officials throughout the world are structured in similar fashion. The same scanning the crowd for a plausible face. A bit more rough and tumble than at a movie press conference. But still the array of faces like baby birds longing for mum to drop a worm down the gullet. Having (sort of) attended the Oscars, I can confirm that much of the press there are in a similar position. You sit in the hotel next door – wearing a dinner jacket, bizarrely – and wait for Leonardo DiCaprio or Brie Larson to come before you and be yelled at.

You get this in sport. Writing in the New Statesman recently, Ed Smith spoke of the pressures on golf writers to get quotes. “This industrialisation of the news cycle is not the fault of anyone in particular,” he explained. “It’s an uneasy compromise between players, agents, tournament organisers, broadcasters, newspapers and, of course, viewers and readers.” The pressure on players in all sports is enormous. Not so bad if you’ve won. But pity the fellow who has to turn up to the hungry journos after walloping his second into the water at the 18th.

Yet some conferences produce drama you would almost certainly not find in a one-on-one interview. Think back to Eric Cantona addressing the third estate after a court hearing concerning his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995. “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” the famously eccentric footballer commented. The line – which, to me, always seemed an uncomplicated analogy for journalists – became so famous that, a full 20 years later, Shia LaBeouf quoted it verbatim before exiting a press conference for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac at the Berlin film festival.

Which brings us back to where we began. In the years I have been attending Cannes no press conference has been quite so chewed over as the one for von Trier’s Melancholia, in 2011. At that Berlin event Stacy Martin manages bemused tolerance as her costar delivers his Cantona cover and drops the mic. In contrast, at Cannes, poor Kirsten Dunst looks excruciatingly uncomfortable as the director speaks words that, even for him, push the boundaries of acceptability. “What can I say? I understand Hitler ... I sympathise with him a little bit,” he says before some hurried qualification. Von Trier issued an apology. The festival declared him “persona non grata” anyway. Dunst won best actress (something her performance in the film deserved).

So, yes. These are weird events that rarely mirror the patterns of ordinary discourse. But they can offer great theatre. Just have a look at how Muhammad Ali managed them.