Cannes: Visiting With Vincent Gallo and Francis Ford Coppola

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Gallo at the Tetro premiere.

CANNES, FRANCE — One of Cannes’s most enduring scandals remains the maelstrom of laughter, boos, attacks, and counter-attacks destined to live on as L’affaire lapin brun. Sensing a ready punching bag in 2003’s The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo’s road movie with a literal climax, the critics pounced; notably Roger Ebert, who called it the worst film in the history of the festival. Gallo retaliated by putting a curse on Ebert’s colon. Ebert, upon seeing a recut version, revised his opinion, and the movie has gone on to some degree of cult respectability. But Gallo has more or less stayed away from the film world since.

He’s back as an actor this year, with the lead role in one of the most talked-about films so far — Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic, Buenos Aires-set family drama, Tetro, which opened the Directors’ Fortnight section last night. Gallo is mesmerizing in the film, in a part he was born to play: a tortured artist, thin-skinned and self-obsessed, charismatic in spite of himself. But he has kept a low profile at Cannes: We were told he wasn’t doing interviews and he skipped yesterday’s press conference (“Where’s Vincent Gallo?,” Coppola asked the moderator). To our surprise, he opted to sit in when we were talking to Coppola this morning.

Gallo, who seemed to be in good spirits, said he had every intention of walking out of last night’s screening. “I asked to sit on the aisle,” he said. “I’ve never sat through a film I’ve been in. When you see yourself on film, there’s mostly pain and regret, there’s never emotion.” But he said he found Tetro gripping: “I was very moved even by scenes that I was in, and I’ve never felt that way.” And what’s more, “There were a couple moments when I looked good.”

Coppola pointed out that Gallo was watching through his hands most of the time. He added: “Do you know how long it took me to cut his hair? Five visits. We had to do it a quarter inch at a time.” Gallo: “I had a photo of Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry, and I was trying to keep it like that. We had Artaud and Clint Eastwood.” Coppola: “It’s fun to go to the barber with Vincent.”

Gallo is working on his next film as director, which he’s shot (on 16-millimeter black-and-white) and is about to edit. But he was content for now to keep the spotlight on Coppola’s movie. Not one for understatement, he went so far as to declare it the fulfillment of an eternal ambition: “The dream of my life was to be in one movie that I like.”

Earlier: Cannes 2009: Your Questions Answered