What's also playing in France: real-life crime

Times Staff Writer

AT THE Cannes Film Festival, there are tales of cat burglars, violent street fights, car robberies and even a pepper-sprayed mogul. But instead of events experienced on the big screen, they are real-life assaults on festival-goers, who often find themselves pressed to keep it all very hush-hush.

The international cinema showcase, which runs today through May 25, is known for its star-jammed red carpets and black-tie premieres. Private jets offload the Hollywood elite, luxury yachts fill the bay, and stars and movie financiers party until dawn, drawing bandits like moths to a flame.

"It's a convention of thieves," says Tom Luddy, a co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival. He is speaking from personal experience: His Cannes hotel room and its safe were cleaned out several years ago. "The pickpockets know it's perfect hunting grounds. They must come from all over the world."

"Every villain going who's worth his salt comes," adds Trevor Wright, a sales representative at the Swiss-based Omega Entertainment who was robbed at last year's festival. "The police told me that [criminals] just come in droves . . . [that] there's a massive spike in crime" during the festival.

Because they often travel with bodyguards, celebrities visiting Cannes are much harder targets. Those in attendance not fortunate enough to have their own security teams are much more likely to be victimized.

Although one local law enforcement commander says crime during the festival is actually on the decline, half a dozen recent victims contend otherwise. Their stories are largely unique to Cannes, which during the rest of the year is a relatively tranquil resort town. But you don't hear much about the crime blotter at the Sundance, Toronto or Telluride festivals. Some of those who have been burglarized at Cannes say they are encouraged by their hotels not to publicize their losses.

Emilie Georges, managing director of French sales company Memento Films International, believes that the crime stories are downplayed because there is an effort "to stifle all sense of any criminal doings during the festival in order to protect its image."

Intruder alert

While some of the Cannes incidents were relatively minor -- a stolen purse, a lifted wallet -- several festival-goers endured terrifying confrontations with intruders breaking into their hotel rooms in the dark of night.

At last year's festival, Graham King, the Oscar-winning producer of "The Departed," returned to his villa on the grounds of the ultra-luxurious Hotel du Cap, the favored beachfront lodging of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Rather than finding a maid turning down his sheets, King discovered burglars in the midst of a break-in. The thieves fled, but not before blasting King with pepper spray and grabbing the purse of one of his colleagues as they ran out. The hotel says it no longer rents King's villa but declined to further comment.

Nikki Parker, who heads up international film publicity at the public relations giant Rogers & Cowan, has been ripped off not once but twice at recent Cannes festivals. In the first instance, about 10 years ago, a cat burglar apparently scaled her hotel's walls, climbed through her third-floor balcony doors and cleaned Parker out while she was sleeping. Parker had recently visited the bank to pay the employees of the marketing company she then ran, and the intruder made off with about $9,000.

Years later, Parker awoke when an intruder was trying to break into her first-floor room at Cannes' Sun Riviera hotel. "I saw this figure at my French door with a mask on," Parker says. "He was outside on my balcony, trying to pick the lock and get into the room. I screamed my head off, but it didn't deter him. He came in, and we actually had a fight."

As she wrestled with the thief over her purse, Parker wondered if her possessions were worth her life. "I suddenly pictured him perhaps having a knife, and I backed down." She lost the purse, and the hotel lost a customer. Producer King, who was Parker's client at the time, found her a room at the Carlton Hotel, where she continues to stay, but she still asks for a room on a high floor.

"There's no other [festival] that I've heard of that has this problem," Parker says. "

The manager of the Sun Riviera Hotel, Marie-Pierre Aymard, who has been at the hotel for the last three months, says that she's aware of an incident about four years ago involving a guest (she couldn't say if it was Parker or not) but that, to her knowledge, nothing nefarious has happened since. There is also full-time security at the hotel now.

Francois Yon, co-founder of the French sales company Films Distribution, says that the areas closest to one of the town's fanciest shopping streets and Cannes' famous beachfront boulevard are out of harm's way.

"Cannes is less dangerous than it was -- thanks to a very strong police presence -- as long as you stay between Rue d'Antibes and the Croisette," Yon says. "Beyond the highway, it is a jungle."

But even the fanciest hotels along the Croisette can be dangerous. Attending the 2001 festival to present "Moulin Rouge," Robin Davids of 20th Century Fox publicity had her purse (and passport) stolen from underneath an outdoor restaurant table while she had lunch at the swank Hotel Martinez. Working for Universal Pictures in Cannes several years ago, film publicist Thomas Castaneda (now part of the publicity firm Nadia Bronson & Associates) lost his possessions when his Carlton room was burglarized.

Bill Pence, director of Dartmouth's film school and a co-founder of the Telluride festival, was lining up for a Cannes screening in the early 1990s on the Rue d'Antibes with his wife, Stella, when he felt a light touch on his buttocks. "I said, 'Stella, will you stop that!' And she said, 'I'm not touching you.' " A pickpocket was, and Pence's wallet was gone.

A few days before the 2000 festival began, the Pences rented a car at the Nice airport to visit the French Riviera on their way to the festival. While the couple paused at a stop sign, thieves opened the unlocked trunk, grabbed Stella's backpack and took off on a motorcycle -- with the Pences' passports and "lots of money," Bill Pence says.

Luddy, the Pences' longtime colleague, took extra steps to make sure his possessions would be secure. While staying at the Hotel Sofitel Le Mediterranee about five years ago, Luddy returned to his room to find the door half destroyed and the previously locked safe (which contained his wife's jewelry but not their passports) emptied. As upsetting as that was, the front desk's response was equally unnerving.

"The hotel at first tried to say we must have left our window open," Luddy says.

'Really freaked me out'

A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, experienced a similarly distressing incident at the same hotel during the 2004 festival. Late one night, Scott went to bed around 4 a.m., leaving his window open "just a crack." When he awoke in the morning, Scott discovered that someone had entered his room and made off with his wallet and laptop computer. "I slept through it. But what would have happened had I woken up? That was what really freaked me out."

He says the hotel argued he wasn't actually burglarized, refusing to call the police. "The managers could not have been less sympathetic," says Scott, who hasn't stayed at the Sofitel since. "I now stay a block away from the police station, but I don't keep the windows open and I keep things in the safe." The Sofitel declined to comment.

John Anderson, a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post, says proximity to law enforcement doesn't necessarily guarantee safety. Returning from a black-tie Cannes benefit a few years ago, Anderson and critic Howard Feinstein ended up in a fistfight with a stranger after Feinstein was cold-cocked near a police station. "The guy was really deranged and he was screaming in French, so I had no idea what he was talking about," Anderson says.

Even though the station was nearby, "it must have taken the cops 20 minutes to come out," he says. "They let us go without asking us any questions and seemed chummy enough with [the assailant]. There was no follow-up."

Gilbert Morandi, the chief commissioner of police in Cannes, says "there have been different incidents" but "things have gotten much better because we have more officers who are deployed at different times of day and we are better coordinated. In the past two or three years, we have really adapted to the issue."

Video surveillance cameras have been added in the streets surrounding the Palais des Festivals, and a team of municipal police monitors a wall of screens around the clock, sending officers out when something suspicious arises.

John Gentzbourger, a retired Cognac distributor who's a Cannes resident, says Mayor Bernard Brochand has helped increase security.

"There have always been pickpockets, but that's true in all big events," Gentzbourger says. "There are fewer muggings -- and really, all important stars have their own security. What's more, the festival takes place in a confined space, which is easy to watch over. Then again, if ostentatious people walk around with lots of jewelry, a Rolex watch and a chinchilla coat," they are easy targets.

But Vincent Maraval, co-head of France's film finance, sales and distributor company Wild Bunch, says, "I don't find Cannes dangerous enough. It's a bit boring."


Times special correspondent Nancy Tartaglione-Vialatte in Paris contributed to this report.


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