Seduced and Abandoned is both a satire on film-making and a love letter to film-making and a joy. A documentary made by the director and writer James Toback, in cahoots with his friend the actor Alec Baldwin, it follows the two as they work their way round the Cannes Film Festival, trying to raise financial backing for a film inspired by Last Tango in Paris. They schmooze. They lunch. They cajole. They beg. And in the process meet, among others, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Ryan Gosling as well as the billionaire shipping heir and journalist Taki, who writes the High life column in this magazine, and whom they try to tap up for $20 million. Taki plays himself, but you know what? He’s so great, he may have a future in it. I don’t think even Gosling could play Taki better than Taki, and I’m not just saying that. (Truly, I’m not.)
The film is funny, and sad, and insightful if you’ve no idea what a movie deal looks like, which I hadn’t. It opens with the quote from Orson Welles about film-making being 95 per cent raising finance and 5 per cent standing behind a camera ‘which is no way to live’. Although it could have opened just as well with this one from Charlton Heston: ‘The trouble with movies as business is it’s art and the trouble with movies as art is it’s business.’ Movies and money. Money and movies. Unhappily married, but forever entwined.
At its heart is Toback and Baldwin’s own project, which they are serious about, or are they? Rather brilliantly, we never quite know. It sounds like a spoof. It reads like a spoof. Provisionally titled Last Tango in Tikrit, it will shift Bertolucci’s film to Iraq, where Baldwin will play a CIA operative and the actress Neve Campbell will play a left-wing reporter and, as Baldwin puts it to a woman who is trying to sell Abu Dhabi to them as a location, ‘the end of the world is coming, so they fuck…I won’t say it’s animal sex, but it will be new frontiers in sex.’ Long silence. Still, they behave so sincerely around their idea, I couldn’t swear it is actually a joke.
They are a sublime pair. Toback, who directed Fingers and The Pick-up Artist and wrote the screenplay for Bugsy, is big and sardonic and walks around like a sad, broken old circus bear, while Baldwin is charismatic, an easy screen presence, as smooth as butter, or whatever else they might use in an updated Last Tango (Flora, probably; maybe Benecol). They schlep around Cannes, meeting the dissenters (‘this used to be a film festival…now it’s a film market’) and actors, like Gosling, who is stupendously brilliant on what it is like to audition as an unknown, and the directors, including Bertolucci, who tells them Brando didn’t speak to him for five years after Tango because ‘I took sincere things from him’.
The directors want to direct, must direct — both Scorsese and Coppola talk movingly about this — but must, of course, have a budget, so we meet the money men. One potential backer tells the pair that Campbell, as an actress, is not sufficiently ‘marquee’ and they’ll have to dump her, even though Toback has sworn he wouldn’t. (We see him swearing this to her face, back in New York, before he left for France.) Natalie Portman would be better, he is told. ‘I am not going to throw Neve under the car,’ says Toback, defiantly, ‘but I could let her die early on?’ Hilariously, you can see how films may start as one thing, finish as another. Someone else — the head of Universal, I think — says something along the lines of: ‘If I make great films no one wants to see and bad films everyone wants to see, unless I keep making the bad films everyone wants to see, I don’t have a job.’ Great.
In the end, Toback and Baldwin give up on the industry, and go chasing after rich people instead. They find Taki on his boat and — again, I am not just saying this — it’s certainly the best portrayal of actual Taki on his actual boat I have ever seen. Taki doesn’t stump up, but does say it is hard being a billionaire and a serious writer because no one takes your writing seriously: ‘People don’t want to pay you to write if they think you don’t need the money,’ he says, although I honestly don’t know what he is talking about there. My monies from The Spectator arrive in a Securicor van with six armed guards and, if Taki isn’t getting the same, he needs to get on to it, ASAP. (I would get on to it for you, Taki, but once I have put my haul away I am generally pretty exhausted; it weighs a lot!)
This isn’t a cinematic film necessarily. You could just as easily watch it on BBC4, say, without losing out. And the screen is often bisected, sometimes even quartered, which plays havoc with your eyes. But it is beautifully revealing, and beautifully clever because they got a better film out of not making a film than they would have done if they’d made their film. Plus, there is a true friendship running through it — at the end, Toback reading aloud a John Updike poem puts tears of love in Baldwin‘s eyes — and it stars Taki playing Taki so authentically, you wouldn’t want to miss it. You wouldn’t.