Every year in May, a phenomenon occurs in the South of France -- the Cannes Film Festival. Like showy, migrating birds, "Zee American Show Beez people" make their annual flight to the Riviera convention of Hollywood deal-makers. Clinging to their cell phones, they stuff themselves with French food, ogle the topless Euro-hotties on the beach and swarm the narrow streets with fistfuls of business cards.
At the grand hotels along the Croisette (the promenade along the beach), desperate show biz climbers dart from one hospitality suite to the next, making frantic attempts to get on guest lists for parties where there might be celebrities or "money people" who might fund their movie project. Very few people go to Cannes for love of the art of filmmaking. They go to make money and connections. Most of the conventioneers are so busy trying to cut deals that they never even see the films competing for the Palme D'Or.
Months before the Cannes Film Festival, Scott Einbinder, producer of "The Velvet Side of Hell" and Steven Kaplan of Rainstorm Entertainment (an L.A. production company), decided to host a Shabbat dinner and invite people of all religions to enjoy an evening of Jewish spirituality in Cannes. In America, religion and business are like peanut butter and jelly, but "Jewish spirituality" on the Riviera? It seemed out of place at a film market in France, a country so proud of being secular.
At first I thought the Cannes Shabbat dinner was another clever networking angle. Religion is big at the box office these days. And what better way for a couple of young producers to rub shoulders with some of Hollywood's big movers and shakers than to invite them to a Shabbat dinner?
But I was wrong about the angle. As soon as I got to the Rococo Villa on Boulevard Montfleury and met Scott and Steve, I knew they were just a couple of nice Jewish boys. They had a tiny budget, but because of their good will and good luck, their Shabbat dinner fell into place.
Miraculously, they secured a sumptuous Belle Époque villa in the hills above the Croisette and some colorful local rabbis to lead the service. Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, executive director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, flew in to help out with the Maariv service. A generous kosher caterer came through with saumon fumé and a cassoulet de poulet aux herbes, more elegantly served than at a restaurant along the Croisette.
My friend Frédéric, a handsome Corsican who had given me a ride to the party from Nice, panicked when a rabbi offered him a kippah.
"I'm not Jewish! I can't wear this hat," he said. "I'm starving, there's all this food but no one's eating! Can I eat, or is that bad form for a Jewish party? And where are the stars? Aren't there any Jewish stars coming?"
It's difficult to explain to a French party-boy who is "doing Cannes" why he can't eat or drink until the sun has completely gone down over the Mediterranean and that even Christian stars might not show up.
I introduced myself to the rabbi and automatically reached to shake his hand. He scooted backward.
"I cannot give you my hand but I can give you my heart," he said.
A guest in a low-cut dress overheard.
"He didn't shake your hand? How rude," she said. "We have another party on the Croisette if you want to go. We're leaving right after we eat."
I explained to her that the rabbi hadn't been rude, that he was actually being polite. (Orthodox men don't touch women who are not related to them.) She quickly lost interest and walked to the other side of the pool where the people looked more important.
At 7 p.m., a group of serious-looking men wearing long beards climbed up to the balcony overlooking the Grecian-style swimming pool and began maariv, the evening prayers. It was all very cinematic, the men in black holding their prayer books, singing and rocking back and forth toward the Bay of Cannes. We stood below them, a group of around 50 Festivaliers surrounded by faux, naked, marble statues of Michaelangelo's David (uncircumcised).
During the prayer, someone's cell phone rang -- loudly. The ring tone was more Compton than Cannes. Just above the rabbis' heads, a large banner belonging to yet another company renting the villa read, "FILMLINELA.COM." Above the banner, on the balcony, several scantily clad starlets leaned out of a window. They were drinking.
"We need female energy," Schwartz yelled from the men-only prayer balcony. He hadn't seen the girls giggling in the window above him and wanted us (female Shabbat guests) to chime in from pool area below. Many blank faces turned to each other. Few guests knew the prayer.
An Israeli woman next to me whispered, "It's so divisive, this kind of Orthodox thing. In Israel, these people scare us. All the dividing of women and men -- it's terrible."
After the Kiddush, people, about 40 in all, rushed to their tables to eat. I saw some hesitation on French faces about the single glass of wine being passed around.
"I feel completely dépaysé [out of one's country]," Frédéric said.
At our table, there were American bankers, lawyers and publicists as well as a French economist, a French rabbi and an attractive Asian woman who worked for an American production company. She was continually pulling up the spaghetti straps of her skimpy dress and blabbing on her cell.
"I'm hanging with the Jews tonight," she slurred into her Nokia. "Tomorrow, we're having a big party at our villa. I'm a little drunk right now."
She was having a hard time sitting in her chair.
A banker at the table told me about the "Velvet Side of Hell," which was produced by our host. "It's about a three-way with an American ambassador. It's got extortion and Hungarian porn stars."
"Are the Hungarian porn stars real actresses playing porn stars?" I asked.
"No," said the banker, "the Hungarian porn stars are playing themselves."
(Scott, the producer, later explained that his film, set in Hungary, was a thriller, not a three-way, and that the banker's description was all wrong: "None of the lead actors or even smaller role actors are porn actors." The banker apparently had been carried away by Cannes' decadent atmosphere, while also figuring that porn stars could be a selling point for "The Velvet Side of Hell.")
Then the French economist asked me very directly about where I invest.
"Have you heard of Israel Bonds," he asked. "I can get you 5 and a half-percent interest."
I'm always interested in a financial tip and everybody at the table seemed to be breaking Sabbath rules, so I asked him how long I had to keep the money in to get the 5 and a half percent.
"Can you remember a number?" the kippah-wearing economist asked.
"No," I said, "I'll write it down. I've got a pen right here."
"No," he yelled. "It's the Shabbat! You have to remember the number! I can't give you a card. I'm not working!"
Across the table, the Israeli woman was arguing with a pro-Palestinian banker.
"Have you ever been to Israel?" she demanded.
"Well then you don't really know what you're talking about," she said. "Come to Israel and see how tiny it is and see who is right!" Like he had touched a live wire, the banker swiveled in his chair toward me and away from her. "Have you seen 'Hellboy,'" he asked me.
"I loved 'Hellboy.' He's so shy and sweet."
I know our hosts meant well by trying to bring a little spirituality to the Cannes Film Festival, but mixing morality with show biz is no easy task. It's like trying to inject water into oil. Still, I enjoyed the party. The food was good, the view was great, the religious ceremony was uplifting and the business chatter was predictably ridiculous. When I left, I couldn't help thinking that I had just experienced the real velvet side of Hell.
Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Nice and Los Angeles. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.