By the time Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, attendees were in a frenzy.
Journalists feverishly lined up two hours before its press screening. Locals prowled the streets begging for tickets to the official black-tie event. Stone-faced gendarmes locked out hundreds of ducat-wielding elites from the over-subscribed, 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière. Stargazing throngs feasted on the red carpet as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio arrived with their lantern-jawed director. VIVA TARANTINO, read a rubbernecker’s cardboard placard.
If “Clapton Is God” was the ’60s graffiti that defined an era, then someone needs to spray-paint “Tarantino Is God” on a Côte d’Azur overpass. No place in the world reveres the movie-mad auteur quite like Cannes. And that’s what Sony is counting on for its star-studded $100 million look back at 1969 Los Angeles. Because—spoiler alert—it isn’t anything like Tarantino’s five previous rip-roaring, vengeance-filled spectaculars. And the studio is going to need a lot of Riviera adulation to help it make back that heady investment.
But this is Tarantino! Doing Charles Manson! Exactly 25 years to the day after Pulp Fiction made its earthshaking debut in the very same theater at Cannes!
Except that it’s also Tarantino doing something he hasn’t done in over 20 years: a slow-burn drama with grounded characters in a meticulously re-created, deeply evocative Los Angeles.
Tarantino hasn’t delivered a film like Once Upon a Time since the romantic crime thriller Jackie Brown opened on Christmas Day 1997. Fundamentally a Tinseltown bromance between a faded star and his stunt double, it’s a valentine to the journeyman actors trying to keep pace in an ever-changing world. Sure, newlyweds Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate frolic with portentous abandon. And Manson family disciples eventually show up, knives drawn. But these real-life figures haunt the picture. They don’t dominate it.
The film’s glitzy global debut is, surprisingly enough, a classic example of curbing expectations. Because Sony knows that the worldwide media who gather at Cannes adore Tarantino, it’s a safe space. Some wondered if Sony should take the risk of playing the film here two months before its late summer release (July 26 in the United States.). But Sony would have taken a bigger risk if it hadn’t.
Walking near Cannes’ yacht-choked port a few nights before Hollywood dropped, I passed a Thai film crew videotaping a news segment. I couldn’t understand anything except one word: “Tarantino.” Do you think a teenage boy in Bangkok has heard of the Tate-LaBianca murders or Squeaky Fromme? Probably not. But there’s a good chance they’ll go see the latest film by QT.
“Shame on the critic who gave it a bad review!” said a journalist into his phone just moments before the cast arrived for its next-day press conference. While the accredited media were among the most excited to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the day before—they burst into applause as soon as their 1,000-seat theater started letting people in—the temperature in the room noticeably cooled over the course of the film’s 161-minute running time.
But that initial shrug turned into an emphatic bear hug once the media got access to the cast. And Cannes was only happy to whip them back up again. “We have living legends in Cannes here today!” the announcer crowed on the closed-circuit festival TV feed showing Pitt and DiCaprio clowning with Tarantino in front of a phalanx of photographers. “It’s the most glamorous photo call of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.”
Hundreds of industry professionals lined up to watch the talent file into a small auditorium and talk with 300 people about the film. “Autographs later!” gently chided moderator Henri Béhar as journalists swarmed the conference table. “C’mon, guys! Merci.” As people went back to their seats, a few turned around and snuck some over-the-shoulder selfies.
Roger Ebert’s widow, Chaz, was one of the first to ask a question, but started with a recollection. “Twenty-five years ago, I remember buying you a plate of spaghetti on the beach,” she said.
“I remember it well,” smiled Tarantino.
A Brazilian journalist then had his turn to talk to the director. “First of all, thank you for existing,” he said.
And it was not, apparently, the time for Time’s Up, either, even though the film’s most destructive characters are female acolytes of Charlie Manson. One Canadian industry vet, an older white man, brought up what he maladroitly called “violence against women, or whatever,” and said, “You’re treading on tricky territory there. I was wondering if you can address that as delicately as you can.”
Tarantino, not wanting to discuss the film’s seriously graphic ending, invoked cinematic executive privilege and redacted his answer accordingly to sidestep the issue: “So I’ll just focus on the way the girls are portrayed before all the murders started.”
A Frenchman asked if #MeToo pariah Polanski was a major influence. “I’ve met him a couple of times,” Tarantino said carefully. “I’m a fan of Roman Polanski’s work.”
And when a female New York Times reporter pointed out that Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) didn’t have many lines in the film, Tarantino immediately presumed it was a trap. “Well, I just reject your hypothesis,” he said curtly. No pushback followed. The international press wasn’t keen on spoiling the moment.
Cannes loves Tarantino and Tarantino loves Cannes. But—more importantly—Cannes needs Tarantino, and Tarantino needs Cannes. It’s a rare relationship, and it could be one of the last of its kind.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood explores the uncertain period between the death of the studio system and the rise of ’70s filmmaking. Aptly enough, the movie itself is part of its own transitional moment. It’s an anachronism: a big-budget, star-driven character study. Projected on 35mm! And it premiered at a film festival which itself is wrestling with its place in an entertainment landscape where stay-at-home, binge-friendly streaming services are the future.
Cannes was fairly quiet this year before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and got noticeably quieter afterward. But while it was here, Hollywood gave Cannes the glamour, the excitement, and the relevance it craves and used to command with ease. For a brief shining moment, all eyes were on Tarantino and Cannes. And each made the other look very, very good.