Hollywood creatures abound in "Cafe Society," Woody Allen's new romantic dramedy set in 1930s Los Angeles, which opens the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday night.
But it was an elephant that filled the room when Allen took a seat for the film's news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Just a few minutes before Allen and the film's cast — which includes Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively — entered the conference in the historic Palais building here, Ronan Farrow published a piece in The Hollywood Reporter slamming the media for not probing further into allegations by his sister Dylan of sexual abuse by the filmmaker.
Farrow, Allen's son and a past critic of his father's personal life, averred that the media had basically been complicit in Allen's attempt to sweep the accusations under the rug.
Though the column was not rife with new facts about the allegations, it sought to build an argument for "a self-perpetuating spin machine" that protected Allen.
Ronan Farrow named-checked legacy publications he believed shared blame, including The Hollywood Reporter itself, which had published a Q&A ahead of the festival in which the issue was not extensively raised. The Times was also named in the criticism, for a decision not to publish a Dylan Farrow letter.
The reason outlets wouldn't give louder voice to these accusations, Farrow asserted, was a case not of news judgment but of powerful people having their way.
To cover it more extensively would require "burning bridges with powerful public figures. It means going up against angry fans and angry publicists."
Instead, he said, "The old-school media's slow evolution has helped to create a culture of impunity and silence. Amazon paid millions to work with Woody Allen, bankrolling a new series and film. Actors, including some I admire greatly, continue to line up to star in his movies."
"It's not personal," one once told me. "But it hurts my sister every time one of her heroes like Louis C.K., or a star her age, like Miley Cyrus, works with Woody Allen."
All of this added up to, he wrote, "a sterling example of how not to talk about sexual assault."
The Farrow column, cannily timed by the Hollywood publication to go up just as the news conference was about to begin, could have prompted a flood of questions to disprove its author's media criticisms. Instead, it played out like a real-life demonstration of exactly the situation he was describing.
Of the eight questions asked, none was about Farrow's piece or the abuse allegations against Allen. Six were generic film-festival questions: casting choices, script preferences, that sort of thing. Two were closer to the bone, but not about the Dylan Farrow issue.
One was about romance and why Allen kept returning to themes of infidelity in his films. The director seemed to have trouble hearing the question (he wore a pair of headphones to assist him throughout the conference), and he had Eisenberg recap the query. The actor summarized the question as simply being about why Allen had "romantic" themes, which the director replied to with a generic response about his level of romantic inclination.
The other question was more pointed, and Allen certainly heard it. The question was why May-December romances in his movies always seem to involve older men and younger women instead of the inverse. ("Cafe Society" has one too.) His response: "I wouldn't hesitate to do that if I had a good idea story [about an older woman-younger man romance]."
He said when he was 30, he had a "big crush on a 50-year-old woman. She was married but wouldn't go near me with a 10-foot pole. These things happen all the time. I just don't have any material. I don't really have anything to draw from," he added.
But even that question was a far cry from the issue at hand, evoking, of course, Allen's marriage to Soon-Yi Previn but not the Dylan Farrow allegations.
(Full disclosure: This reporter did not ask about the alleged abuse either. Fuller disclosure: He raised his hand but was not called on. Fullest disclosure: He had two questions ready — one on the subject and one on the film — and was going to make a decision based on game-time conditions and/or nerves.)
When all was said and done, the event was one of the most dramatically awkward news conferences I can recall in many years of Cannes coverage, and that includes, in its own way, the Lars von Trier Nazi affair five years ago. At least then the controversy was on the table instead of just hovering in the air.
Ronan Farrow's Hollywood Reporter piece criticizing reporters did not accidentally land on this day; it was meant to hit in the exact minutes before Allen was to face the media, meant for maximum gauntlet-throwing, not to mention headline attention. It also, not incidentally, meant to leaven the far lighter piece on Allen that The Hollywood Reporter had run last week.
Cannes is an institution that wants to keep the focus on cinema, and in that regard, a case could be made that the news conference was not designed to go further afield. The debate over Allen's actions can (and has) played out in many other forums; an opening-night film-festival news conference, one might argue, may not be the most suitable of those places, especially in the absence of substantive new information.
Then again, victims have the right to be heard, and, with the person he or she is accusing facing hundreds of journalists, one also might expect my colleagues and me to speak for them.
The questions didn't even have to be on the facts of the case. They could have been about the piece, or the publicity. How did Allen feel about it? What would he say to Ronan if he were sitting here now? Did he understand if some people watched his movies differently because of the controversy over the past few years, or didn't watch them at all? Did that make him angry, or did he understand it?
Instead, the Cannes conference laid bare the elaborate performance art that entertainment journalism can sometimes be. A filmmaker comes out and meets scores of reporters from around the world. But one of the main things those reporters (and their readers) want to know goes undiscussed. Whether it's self-censoring or fear of reprisal or simple inattention, it's problematic. There is more media devoted to entertainment than to almost any other realm of human existence. But volume doesn't always equate to honesty.
The festival will continue apace. On Wednesday night, "Cafe Society" will kick off at one of the most elegant nights on the film calendar. Expect adulation and ceremony and applause. There won't be any further addressing of the Dylan Farrow issue. Everyone in the room here Wednesday — and plenty of people outside it — had a question on their minds. Nobody came with any answers. The festival and the film's distributor, Amazon Studios, breathed a sigh of relief. One imagines Dylan and Ronan Farrow are less sanguine.