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Press coverage goes from fun to frantic.

PARIS "When people hear 'Cannes' they think 'film festival' and when they hear 'film festival' they think 'Cannes,"' says Louisette Fargette, referring to the tandem of location and event that was her vocation from 1949 to 1992.

Fargette, who stepped down as head of the festival's press office after the 45th Cannes Intl. Film Festival, has seen the world's most famous film fest evolve from "the pace of a coalstoked locomotive to the sleek speed of the TGV."

In a world dotted with persnickety publicists who dole out interviews or accreditation based on prior praise and/or the phases of the moon, Fargette is cheerfully democratic. "My attitude was always,'You can attack us or praise us to the skies,"' Fargette explained via telephone from her home in Montmartre. "The important thing is to talk about Cannes, to stir things up and draw attention to the films and the people who make them." (The veteran publicist, whose gracious whiskey voice projects unpretentious elegance, IS listed in the Paris phone book so, she says. "My journalist friends from around the globe can always find me.")

Although Fargette can't read Russian, Japanese or Arabic and insists that her command of English is scant, she can still spot an important article when she sees one. After France, neighboring Italy devotes the greatest amount of ink to Cannes. "TV coverage has changed things a lot," Fargette admits. "But video goes by in a flash and then it's forgotten. Written articles circulate and linger on."

In 1949 when she first joined the staff, Fargette recalls, "The New York Times devoted three or four lines to the entire festival. At the time, mind you, three or four lines in such an important paper was considered quite a coup."

Fargette got her start with the festival administration by replacing a secretary on maternity leave. "I was a Parisian and unfamiliar with the Cote d'Azur. We took le Train Bleu -- back then the festival was in September, not May--and I remember the magnificent wood trim and the porters in their spotless white gloves. It was a long exciting trip in a coal-burning train."

Fargette, who refers to the press as "my second family," has ended up with a great many "relatives." There were "250 journalists at most and no Americans" at the 1949 fest, according to Fargette's recollections. Actually, Variety's Paris correspondent was there, and reported: "Hollywood high-pressuring is very lax and the only film star with his picture prominently placed around town is Lassie."

Total press accreditation (1996 figures) now runs to 3,867, including photographers and TV technicians. Of these, 1,605 are stationed year-round in France and 2,262 came from 70 countries outside of France. In 1996 there were "fewer than 10" accreditations for new media, according to the festival.

Although fest credentials now, of necessity, cover a range from steerage to first class, all scribes were once on "rigorously equal footing," Fargette says. Instead of color-coded badges, each journalist was issued a "carpet"--a passport-style booklet with detachable coupons, filled out by hand. The ushers tore off the corresponding coupon each time the journalist attended a daily screening. "I have a few still," she says with pride and nostalgia. "I've lovingly held on to one that belonged to Jean-Louis Bory"--the seminal critic for whom a theater in the Palais is now named.

Although the carnet system lasted only 10 or 15 years, one literally early institution has endured. "From the time I began, the first screening of the day was always at 8:30 in the morning," Fargette recalls. "There were elaborate discussions about what time to get under way, and some people were proponents of starting at 9 a.m. But 8:30 sharp won out."

Having worked her way up through the ranks, Fargette was first entirely in charge of press relations following the French general strike of May 1968, an event that closed down the festival after just a few days. "It was highly dramatic and I felt terrible for the foreign filmmakers whose expectations were dashed because, after all, it was a French problem, not an international problem," Fargette says. "But it was definitely a ease of force majeure.

"Since it was virtually impossible to get back to Paris, we had to shuttle foreigners to the Italian border so they could make it home. It was historic, to say the least."

Fargette's career brought her into contact with some of the towering greats of the seventh art. "I had Alfred Hitchcock in my office waiting for a press conference, and that in itself was wonderful," she muses. "But it was especially nice when another director stuck his head in to tell me something and ended up having the opportunity to shake the master's hand.

"John Huston," she adds, "had charm to spare. Ingmar Bergman is a fine, fine man."

As for the performers: "We see the stars out and about far less than in the old days. Now a limousine comes to get them and they stay in their hotel rooms and only come out to present their films. They're on hand for a general press conference and give a few rare interviews. But they participate far less in the life of the festival. In the old days, you could play petanque with Kim Novak. The stars came to the press luncheons and mingled with the pencil pushers. Times have changed."

The most peculiar incident she can recall? "A journalist arrived the day after the closing ceremonies and was quite irate that we hadn't waited for him. He was a little nuts."

The greatest misconception about her former job? "People would tell me, 'You're so lucky you get to go to the Cote d'Azur. What a wonderful opportunity to take a vacation.' But it's not a vacation, as any journalist worth his or her salt will tell you. The very serious journalists see as many as seven films a day." She pauses, then points out, "Seven films is a lot. Some leave tan, but countless others leave more pale than when they arrived."

When she first arrived in '49, could Fargette have imagined that the Cannes Film Festival would grow to its present size and importance? "Never. Nobody, but nobody, could have imagined what it's become. Cannes was a village. When I came in '49, not all of the offices had been built yet and the press service was set up in the covered courtyard of the Carlton Hotel's tennis courts-- which are long gone. The American companies had their headquarters in three chalets behind the Carlton. Where the pleasure craft harbor is now, by the Palm Beach--until 1952 or so, that was a pine forest. Developers leveled it to build docks for millionaires.

"The old Palais Croisette was the very soul of the festival. Now when you leave a screening you're part of an anonymous cluster of humanity--the old Palais was designed for conviviality, for the joys of lingering. The Noga Hilton has usurped the festival's historic heart."

Apropos of history, Fargette confirms that it is "absolutely true" that Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco first met at Cannes curing the festival and that Kirk Douglas met his wife, Anne, in Cannes where she was working for the fest. And Fargette knows of cinema journalists who, brought together by festival assignments, met in Cannes and later married.

Her best memory? "I think it must have been the year they showed 'that's Entertainment!' and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse and Johnny Weissmuller all arrived at the same time. I remember thinking, 'We're not likely to see a lineup of talent like this again soon."'

Lisa Nesselson writes for Variety and other publications from Paris.
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Title Annotation:Cannes 50 Years; Cannes Film Festival
Author:Nesselson, Lisa
Date:Mar 24, 1997
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