- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
In May 2018, filmmaker and all-round cine-enthusiast Mark Cousins found himself at a lunch in Cannes, seated beside Oscar-winning British producer Jeremy Thomas, when a thunderstorm hit the swanky beachside terrace. As the other celebrity invitees ran for cover Thomas revelled in the chaotic moment, and thus was born this feature-length portrait, filmed during the following pre-Covid year of 2019, when Cousins joined Thomas on his regular leisurely drive through France to make it back to the Croisette.
Hence this is at once a road movie, a filmed interview and a critical overview, starting from a place of respect verging on adoration, since Cousins isn’t alone in reckoning that Thomas – and the impeccably independent cinema he’s championed from Bernardo Bertolucci, Nic Roeg and David Cronenberg through to Ben Wheatley and Takashi Miike – stands as a bulwark against the cultural homogenisation of today’s Hollywood studio fare. Interviewees, including actors Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger, join in, fulsome in their praise, and soon Thomas is being lauded as a prince, a magician and comparable in his regard for outsider artists to other great English radicals like Turner, Virginia Woolf, Michael Powell and Malcolm McLaren.
Heady stuff indeed, and while Thomas’s filmography indisputably speaks for itself, Cousins is less keen on exploring the precise role of the producer in its making. Bad Timing (1980), The Hit (1984), The Last Emperor (1987) and Crash (1996), to quote just a few key titles from an extensive list, can certainly stand up for themselves in any company, but the process which makes Thomas a true maverick among producers doesn’t get much scrutiny, whether on a film by film basis or as a career overview.
Is Thomas curator or creator? Maybe a bit of both? Cousins, seemingly, doesn’t want to break the spell cast by this celluloid Wizard of Oz by showing us the bloke behind the curtain working the levers. That said, he could only work with what he was given, so perhaps those questions were asked and the answers weren’t forthcoming. We’ll never know, though in the meantime what’s on screen is playful, considered and consistently diverting from beginning to end – once you accept its limitations.
Acting as a one man crew, Cousins picks up eye-catching local colour en route and allows us the vicarious thrill of checking into a super-luxe Cannes seafront hotel, being led to our room and opening the window for a view to the gleaming azure Med and its flotilla of high-end yachts.
His selection from the Thomas filmography is just as tantalising, whether it’s roadside coupling from Crash, a ruminative Denholm Elliot in Bad Timing, Gene Hackman’s grisly demise in Eureka (1983), or the talking anus-cum-beetle in Naked Lunch (1991), it absolutely makes you want to watch the films again and follow Cousins’s intuitive, enticing tracery of sex and death and politics, bouncing from auteur to auteur. His connections involve cutting directly between between clips from different films, and even poignantly overlaying Bad Timing’s finale with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s plaintive piano theme from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), all of which could seem riskily impudent were it not done with such taste and skill.
Unexpectedly, the standout moments are a couple of transitional montages of still images, one announcing our arrival in France with a selection of Turner and Constable seascapes, another riffing on the dazzling allure of the Cannes red staircase with a bravura selection of themed movie frame captures, including Battleship Potemkin, Funny Girl, The Shining, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Citizen Kane, Le Ballon Rouge and much, much more.
It’s hard for Thomas to compete with that little lot, but his crinkly squished walnut face proves an intriguing screen presence, his growly all-the-time-in-the-world voice appeals and, like any producer, he’s often on the phone or scanning the room for better options.
We appreciate his ideological journey from the privileged scion of British movie royalty to scourge of the establishment and champion of fierce counter-cultural talents, and learn a little about how his near-fatal brush with cancer has given him a renewed relish for life.
There’s a sense that the nine-Oscar tally for The Last Emperor was a moment like the gold strike in Eureka, exhilarating yet with a complex legacy, while we never even get into a discussion of what his greatest disappointments were, or exactly why All the Little Animals (1998) remains a solo outlier, his only director credit to date. Mostly though, we’re left with the sense that Cousins is really more fired up by the films than the man himself, and, as portraits go, while this is expertly framed, filled with captivating brushwork, ultimately its subject is giving little away.
Mark Cousins on Sarajevo’s Obala cinema and watching films in a war zone
The director and film critic remembers an underground venue during the Bosnian war.
By Mark Cousins
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy