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CANNES – 2015
RAOULS OF ENGAGEMENT
by Harlan Kennedy
It’s a burst of sound like an exploding flower. It’s a crack across the dark like a musket shot. It’s the ghost spirit of the Cannes Film Festival exulting proudly, loudly, as it tickles the present with a real or imagined past.
This surreal shout, unique to the world’s premier movie junket, happens nearly every evening at Cannes in the Debussy theatre. The cry of “Raoul” rings out, in the competition’s main preview venue for the press, as the lights dim before a movie’s start. Someone in the audience – seldom identifiable unless you’re sitting close – has let rip with their vocal cords. Other spectators titter, cheer or hiss in response. Sometimes a security man, if you can discern him in the gloom, pokes a mole-like, accusing stare towards the imagined source.
Then the commotion subsides and the film begins.
All this for a name and an utterance that not only baffle Cannes newcomers but mystify, to this day, many of the rest of us too.
Who is Raoul?
When did this weird custom start?
What is it about?
A friend of mine, a noted Cannes veteran, recently told an interviewer that the cry “goes back five or seven years.” Five or seven? No, no, dear friend. Quadruple that number. It goes back as long as I have been coming here and probably longer.
The generally believed story – call it the Raoul foundation myth – is that long ago a chap at a press screening, wanting to hail a late-coming friend as the friend’s silhouette passed in front of the screen, shouted out his name. Which happened to be Raoul.
It’s a simple and satisfying explanation, which is why it has been disputed ever since. Crazy people, the kind of crazy people who like coming to Cannes (a town twinned with Crazytowns worldwide), don’t like ‘simple’ and are seldom satisfied by ‘satisfying.’
They want a myth. They want it now and they want it forever. They want it strong, wild and fanciful. So the Raouls multiply. Maybe, go the mythmaking surmises, the cry goes back to Raoul Walsh, famous eyepatched director of Hollywood westerns. Maybe it goes back to Raoul Dufy, famous French painter and post-impressionist Cannes lover. Maybe – who can gainsay? – it’s Raoul Wallenberg, founder of the United Nations. Or Raoul the Rednosed Recidivist, the famous defector from the Rosa Luxembourg cell who came to Cannes in 19—
Well, no, I’ve started making this up. You see? It’s infectious. Once begun we can’t stop. Myths begets myths. A myth is as good as a mile of myths.
And you have to hear the shout today – “Raoul!” (say it loud, say it clear, say it proud, say it near) – to believe its antic intensity and the force of its legend-inducing lure. The shouter, whoever he may be on any one night, puts his everything into it. He cries like de-pebbled Demosthenes; like a strident Saint-Just rallying the sans-culottes; like a banshee limbering up for the Banshee Olympics.
I say ‘he’, not to be sexist but because I never heard a woman make the cry. I do not rule it out. It just hasn’t happened. (You could make a joke here about “I don’t Raoul it out”. Ed.)
I repeat. You have to hear the shout’s oracular panache to believe it. Somebody some day will put it on YouTube or I-Tunes; then everyone will experience the oomph and sonic espieglerie.
No late-shuffling human silhouette ever appears, of course, in the Debussy theatre, or to modern knowledge has done, to provide rhyme or reason for this shout. God forbid. We don’t want logic; we don’t want cause and effect to contaminate rite and pageant. This is a piece of Dadaist theatre, often more entertaining – far more entertaining, I venture – that the film about to begin.
(Some “Raoul” shouters have been observed to leave the theatre as soon as they have shouted. Their day’s work is done. They are dramaturges dedicated to a moment. Let the minions watch the movies.)
For me the Raoul ritual has a meaning deeper, though, even than Dadaism; more symbolic than a mere surrealist’s acte gratuit. I see it as a playacting of – let’s call it – civilised lycanthropy. A moment of truth stolen from the savage and gifted in benediction to cine-sensibility.
Let’s examine this ‘play’. Let’s analyse it step by step. It happens when darkness descends, but yet when a glowing light simultaneously starts to ‘rise’ – in responsive equipoise – at the far end of the viewer’s vision range.
Consider the darkened theatre space as the night. Consider the glowing screen as the moon. On planet Earth at this moment – on an auditorium seat – someone lets out a noise that sounds very like a howl.
It is barbaric yet bewitching. The werewolf is in the building. But please do not panic. Veuillez tenir vos places, as they say in Cannes, Kindly keep your seats.
For that werewolf is all of us.
We are all turned to wonderstruck primitives; yes, to savages made clamorous by awe of the ineffable, and made primal again by the glow of the new or renewed, when illumination dims and art, that greater illumination, begins.
It is the moment of epiphany. A howl, followed by a proper, prolonged and votive silence, lasting one to three hours with subtitles if necessary, would be the only possible fit response. The curtain of the dimensions has opened. Let the beautifying barbarism of movie art, at the world’s greatest host event for that art, begin its nightly necromancy.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved