Greetings from Chez Jacques

by Paul Hanford

I wake up, uncertain how many people are asleep around me. Sometimes it’s just Jacques, at other times indeterminate snores ping pong over the fold-down sofa, into the shower unit and across the kitchenette. I slip into my trunks, part the patterned curtains and fall into the pool. At first, we all went over-ripe, our skin blistering tomato red. Amazing how quickly adrenaline gives way to structure. And structure starts with counting the cracks at the bottom of the pool.

Chlorine fills my nose. Along the unkempt orange tiles leading to the laundry room, Bryan, eyes fixed on the ground, cradles a heap of baguettes as if they were his babies. I think of calling out, but then I notice that he isn’t here. Restricted to a twin hob, his job is to produce three meals a day for a 30-strong crew, on a budget of €6 per head. The very same Bryan, wrap-around shades and Dublin wisecracks, who met me off the flight from Nice ten days earlier. About half way through, he went full zombie. Now, Bryan necks fish-oil tablets and silently races between kitchenette, hypermarché and Chez Jacques.

Letting the Riviera sun dry me, I stroll back along the courtyard. The actress playing Jean Seberg emerges from the chalet next door, towel around her waist, tugging on a Gitane. We kissed a few nights ago; it wasn’t a big thing – both in character, fuelled by the improvisational aspects of this job. We nod.

I’m here as a DJ, hired by Secret Cinema. For them, I’ve been a patient in a 1970s lunatic asylum, eaten Pret sandwiches with dwarf robots in a future Los Angeles and led an ensemble of fasting Oud players through Arabia. By alchemizing the experiential sweat of actors and technicians into the hyperbolic tweeting of disorientated thrill seekers, the company has exploded. And now the cash from the corporates is there to be feasted on. From Hackney Art School to working in conjunction with Stella Artois at the 53rd Festival De Cannes.

“The concept is nouvelle vague,” the creative director briefed me. “A play on the festival’s history, this whole Riviera vibe. We’re going to dress the entire space like it’s some ’60s playboy’s pad, have actors running around, blur the lines between the real Hollywood in front of us and the one we’re recreating.”

I neck one of Bryan’s tablets and climb onto a crew bike. Over the next six kilometres, with each turn of the pedal I turn more into my character, Serge. The palm tree seclusion of our chalets gives way to a series of retail outlets. Giant billboards for strip clubs tower over the road. This is the gateway. The monochrome Kansas you must pass through in order to arrive in Oz.

La Croisette is life over-saturated. If it were a cake, it would be inedible. On one side, jetties fall into a matte-painted bay of yachts, some so luxury they incubate helicopters. On the other, the town of Cannes weaves uphill into a concrete mesh of H&Ms and food kiosks, phone shops and disconnected, staring locals.

Serge could have been played by David Hemmings. Serge photographs thin women draped in furs, which he no longer enjoys. He drives an old MG recklessly. He’s met both a Kray and a royal and he’s stolen from Eric Clapton. Serge is also a DJ and uses something that will later become known as Serato, the in-house resident at French playboy Jacques’ bachelor pad.

Chez Jacques is one of an army of tents along the beach, each one a separately owned event space, each one hosting Q&As and screenings and galas by day, before fluoro lighting and Auto-Tuned Euro take over at night. I walk down the jetty, past security and into the tent. Above us, all intricate turrets and balconies, looms the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hotel Martinez. Here, for $37,500 a night, you can imagine your head rests on a pillow shared through time with occupying Nazis, the U.S. Army and Sharon Stone.

“Bonsoir Serge, my good friend,” Jacques greets me, above sharply tailored tie and cuffs. Jacques has a long, busted crook of a French nose. Jacques knows all the elegant women in backless gowns who drink espresso on hotel balconies. Jacques whispers familiarly in the ears of the croupiers who in turn nod and take his advice. His pad is fitted with a circular bed. He has his own waiters and two beautiful women from Brussels known only as “The Happy Girls” who never fail to fit the description.

Jacques had to get up early to meet with the creative director and the Stella Artois team and review issues that have come up during the run. Electricians are repairing the damage wrought by last night’s revelry. The waiters are running cleaning fluid through the pipes. The Secret Cinema production team are huddled in a cluster of Airbooks at the centre of the space.

“Last night was bullshit,” says Jacques, who spent December dressed as one of Santa’s helpers in a Westfield. “Fucking Eurotrash, wannabe models giving their numbers to greasy businessmen. We need cool people in tonight.”

I hit the main strip in search of coffee. I see a man and woman whose skin is so golden and stretched they appear to have bathed in the stuff you make award statuettes with. I see my reflection in a car window, almost invisible.

A couple of nights ago, Kanye West took over Chez Jacques. Security went into hyperdrive and none of our crew, The Happy Girls excepted, were allowed anywhere near the place. I jostled through a swarm of paps to the red carpet where beautiful, statuesque women lined the roadside – an imperial guard remodelled by Roger Vadim, buttock-enhancing red dresses forming an Art Deco line towards Chez Jacques.

“It was so fucking weird,” Jean Seberg is telling me, over Gitanes and beachfront espresso, her real-life Glaswegian burr an octave deeper than her character’s. She had snuck into the Kanye party by swimming across the beach. “So there’s fucking Leonardo DiCaprio, and he’s just sat there, on one of those plastic chairs the art team sourced from B&Q, right? And he’s just sort of staring into the middle distance. It was like, you know when your parents come to visit and you leave them for a few minutes on your sofa? And then suddenly, they lose all their…I don’t know, their thing, and they’re just sort of, lost and alone?”
“I’ve gotta run to the green room.” I shake my body the way actors do when they’re warming up.
“Become Serge, doll,” Jean Seberg says, already on her phone.

Amongst mirrors and makeup counters, buried under the debris of supermarket bags, greying salads and Evian bottles, in a room without windows behind the kitchens of the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hotel Martinez, the costume team work in a mist of hairspray and laundry steam. They hoist me into a thrift-sourced tux, weave the bow tie in place and lacquer my hair. Hollywood DNA cloned from Hospice hand-me-downs. Serge looks back at me in the mirror; he tells me he’s spent the night wandering the streets of Venice, carrying the violin case of a woman he’s seen only once, in a photograph.

Serge never lets Paul Hanford slouch and Serge finds it distasteful the only reason Paul smokes in the day is duress. As Serge, I stride past the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hotel Martinez. I meet eyes with an ageless beauty in a turquoise hat and her salmon-suited gentleman. Porters nod. A gendarme stands in front of the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hotel Martinez, his face featureless, a golden ghost in an orange haze, arms aloft, welcoming me into evening time at the 53rd Festival Du Cannes. But as I go to hug him, I realise he’s part of a human barrier stopping hundreds of people from crossing the road while a motorcade passes.

Down the jetty and into Chez Jacques. Instead of Airbooks, there are now lava lamps. The actioning of PR meetings replaced with the mating call of orangutans, as the actors stretch and breathe into their characters.

Front of house: “Opening in five minutes.”

I walk past a giant circular TV playing Bande à Part on repeat and sit outside on a sand dune that rolls lethargically down into the Riviera. I light a Gitane. In this exact spot, a week earlier, Vodafone couldn’t connect me to my Dad. I’d needed the excitement of telling him Robert DeNiro was about to arrive Chez Jacques.

“That’s Travis fucking Bickle!” I had whispered to Jean Seberg, leaning over the decks, externally in character, inwardly in awe. A few feet away in a largely empty Chez Jacques, De Niro had stood, sipping Stella, deep in conversation with two bronzed, Armani-clad men, who, if they weren’t Hollywood executives, could be actors you’d cast as Hollywood executives.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I replied, giving Serato a filter swoosh. “Like, weird they have to book out an entire venue just to go for a midweek pint?”
“Poor fella,” yelled Jean Seberg. “Just wants to go down Wetherspoon’s Curry Club, talk about the footie then go home and have a wank, thinking about the barmaid.”
She picked up a stack of mocked-up New York Daily Tribunes and weaved past De Niro, who, I’m convinced, checked out her arse.

The speedboat buzz jolts me back to where spotlights aim, as actors in camel-coloured trench coats run down the jetty. “Jacques!” They shout as they fire flashes from meticulously sourced cameras. The dunes are now filled with guests looking towards the jetty. Jacques and The Happy Girls are being lifted out of the speedboat by non-nouvelle vague-dressed security. The guests are a mix of the curious and the visibly irritated. I wonder, as I do every night, how many are aware that this is part of an immersive performance.

All along the strip, tents are booming out bangers. Inside toilets, dicks are being sucked and lines snorted. Outside, the producers of low-budget horror movies are trading cards with Farringdon PAs and discussing where they got their cards printed and how it was like an eleventh-hour nightmare that the cards hadn’t arrived back from the printers and yes, they were scared they’d be boarding at Stansted sans cards, or worse, having to use those old cards with the shitty old logo. Inside Chez Jacques, I’m on Serato and getting two or three Stellas at a time from The Happy Girls, who are shooting evils at a couple of drunk starlets. The drunk starlets take selfies, unaware that they’re being derided. Jacques is spraying champagne from the circular bed and then my vision flickers and he’s leaning into me, saying: “Just fucking ramp it up! Hit the bangers!”

And this is Chez Jacques. And then we close. Guests flood away to the bars and hillside parties.

“Look at the way the fucking lights all come alive,” Jean Seberg says, arms raised as if she’s cupping a yacht in each hand, mellow waves splashing around her thighs. “It’s fucking breathing.”

Neon yellows and electric blues quiver like giant starfish under the yachts. While on top, in crisp white silk, are some people that you recognise and many that you don’t and all of this in HD. And then there’s me and Jacques and Jean Seberg and we’re up to our hips in sea.

“Fucking beats Westfield!” Jacques roars and dives underwater. I wonder about kissing Jean Seberg again, but she’s already off hailing a cab. So Jacques and I, legs dripping from the sea, run along La Croisette and jump into a taxi. I thrust the scrap of paper with the motel address towards the drivers. Two of them. Two drivers, one in either front seat.

“You pay 90!” the taxi guys keep saying, after we pull into the chalets. I run towards a recycling bin to chunder. Through the bin muffle, I hear Jacques and he’s rasping, calling them cunts, saying we’d pay the 30, the same 30 we pay a taxi every night to take us back to the chalets, but like, no way 90.

Then it all blurs. We’re sat on deck chairs in front of our chalet. One second, our pulses are slowing to normal, the next the rising sun is blocked by a giant tuxedo standing over us.

“You have no idea what you mess with,” says the giant tuxedo, lifting his shirt to reveal a vast scar that traverses his continent of a torso. The scar itself looks wider than my arm span. Did he just materialise?
“You have no idea who I am.” The giant’s suit smells like it gets vacuumed in a garage. He has his Blackberry and its charger in his hand.
“My taxi drivers, they say I just kill you.” He prods my belly with the Blackberry. “But I say, they not stupid, they fucking pay.”

His eyes, they’re huge – the eyes of a whale and they’re looking down at me and I try to look away, scared that the moment we cross beams something terrible will be visited upon me. Later, I will ruminate on how the whale-eyed giant came to us, how final his word might be. I’ll overplay the incident sometimes and underplay it others. People will ask, “Were you scared?” and I’ll say, “Of course.” But I’ll say it with a shrug, like the broken-nosed anti-hero of Bande à Part, as if to say, so what?

I sleep until anxiety jolts me awake. I pull on my trunks and let the chlorine from the pool fill my nostrils. Under the water, the cracks are all in place. Bryan scurries past. He drops a baguette. Maybe he is eager to not make eye contact or he genuinely doesn’t notice, but the baguette stays behind, neither on the grass that leads to the chalets nor in symmetry with the tiling around the laundry room. I think of packing the baguette in my bag, so that I could have it later today on the dunes. Before the jetty comes alive.


Illustration by Paul Hanford

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