Documentary, satire, social commentary — call it what you will, this new “uncategorizable” film, Seduced and Abandoned, from screenwriter and director James Toback and Alec Baldwin says more about the state of moviemaking than any other film.
Toback and Baldwin head to the place where movies are revered, glorified and bankrolled: the Cannes Film Festival. In the process to find financing for their new film, they end up exposing the nature of filmmaking — a tug of war between creative control and hitting the bottom line, while the audience gets a courtside seat during every step of the process. From New York City to the Cote D’Azur, these partners in crime use their film project as a vehicle to capture the cinematic history of Cannes and the current movie marketplace. Whether their film (a loose retelling of Last Tango in Paris set in Iraq) is real or not is inconsequential, but it serves as the driving force for the narrative as they meet with billionaires and foreign sales agents on their quest for cash.
The French Riviera makes for a more romanticized setting than the backlots of Hollywood, as the duo sit down with some of the forefathers of the industry, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, as they reflect on their career trajectories and the shifting state of the industry. Coppola discusses his disillusion with Cannes as it went from being a “festival” to a marketplace, or “bullfight” as he puts it. Scorsese remains slightly more optimistic but talks about operating within an increasingly small margin and fighting for his films. As countless studio heads and sales agents profess, movies are made with either huge budgets or on a shoestring, with hardly any wiggle room in between.
As Toback and Baldwin court billionaires and make their rounds to the foreign sales agents, we realize that Russia and Saudi Arabia are bankrolling most of Hollywood and that you’re only as big as your bankability. As they wander through the halls, Toback compares it to the diamond district in New York, with everyone trying to sell their flashy wares. The goods are glamorous, while the business is not. With the two hobnobbing on yachts, glitzy parties and private estates, we can see why it’s so hard to get these suits to cough up the cash. No longer do we live in an era of yes men and disposable funds to throw around. Businessmen are willing to sink their fortunes into all kinds of risky investments, just not the film industry. When “traveling to space and curing cancer” are at the top of one socialite’s aspirations, financing a movie takes the backseat.
Throughout the film, there is an easy rapport between Toback and Baldwin, two longtime friends. It is their contrasting personalities — Toback’s flexible optimism countered by Baldwin’s “fondness for reality” — and their affection for each other which carries the film. Along with the directing greats, the two also grill some of the more desirable stars on the scene, like Ryan Gosling, who can charm the pants off any investor, and Jessica Chastain, currently upmarket Hollywood’s go-to leading lady.
From the opening ceremony to the closing red carpet, we constantly see the whirling carousel on the Cannes waterfront, a metaphor for the cyclical nature and futility of the business. Despite the frustrations, the film is at heart a love letter to filmmaking and the people who make it magical. It’s also about the immortality of film, as Toback (ever the savvy businessman) reminds his potential investors: their money is no good to them when they’re dead, but their name on the credits will live on forever.