TWO DECADES OF NOIR IN FEST by
The Noir in Fest film and literary festival moved to the mountain ski resort of Courmayeur, in the Valle d’Aosta in December 1993. A small and wonderfully picturesque town at the foot of Mont Blanc, and just a few miles away from the Mont Blanc Tunnel which connects it to France, Courmayeur already had minor film connections as it was where Errol Flynn had begun filming his ill-fated version of William Tell with the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff before money ran out and the film crew had to do a runner (leaving canisters of rushes behind which the festival dug up some 70years later and screened in the presence of Flynn’s widow); mountain scenes from a James Bond Italian rip-off movie starring Sean’s brother Neil Connery were also shot there in the 1960s, which gave the festival the excuse to screen the film, alongside other Italian spy spoofs of the same period, in 2008 with Neil present, and a most entertaining presence he was too(he retired from the film world early and is now a happily-retired Edinburgh property developer quite untainted by the family stardom.)
The festival usually takes place a week or so before the actual ski season begins so the festival-goers and attendant delegates, guests and press are usually divided between a half dozen hotels and much socialising takes place throughout and often well into the night at the many cafes and hotel bars of the town. The formal part of the festival usually presents 10 or so brand new films from all over the world in competition, with added retrospective streams, shorts, children’s events and a slew of panels involving filmmakers and up to 12 or so writers, both local and foreign, presenting their latest books to have appeared in Italy. In addition, every year the festival presents the Raymond Chandler Award for life achievement to a writer present (although on a couple of occasions it has gone to a film person like Quentin Tarantino and actor Farley Granger). Past recipients have included Graham Greene, JG Ballard, Frederick Forsyth, PD James, Scott Turow, Robert Bloch, George Pelecanos, James Crumley, Ian Rankin, John Grisham, Spanish authors Alicia Gimenez Bartlett and Manuel Vasquez Montalban. Uruguayan Osvaldo Soriano, John Le Carre, Elmore Leonard, etc… The award is an actual Brasher Doubloon, a small but significant gold coin. The festival also hosts the awards for best Italian unpublished and published novels of the year, respectively the Alberto Tedeschi and Scerbanenco prizes.
I was one year asked to be part of the film jury and was imprudently late for breakfast on the second morning, only to find out that my fellow judges had elected/nominated me as Jury President. On another occasion, as one of the few Brits present, I was invited on stage (on live Italian TV to boot) to accept the best actor award on behalf of Jeremy Irons, to sighs of heavy disappointment in the audience when they realised Irons had not made the journey and most were wondering who I was! By the way Jeremy, the award, a lovely silver sculpture, is still now in a box in my side room waiting for you to pick it up after a dozen attempts to get you on a London film stage have failed! So I am now part of an exclusive past jury festival president’s club, including recent veterans like James Sallis, Peter James, Dario Argento and others!
There have been significant and lasting friendships made in the Courmayeur events and bars over the years, and the creme de la creme of international crime fiction have all made their way through Courmayeur’s narrow streets and, often, snow. Some years, things click better than others, but there have been memorable moments to say the least: Stella Duffy arm-wrestling with James Crumley, Val Kilmer and Richard Price behaving like spoilt brats, Peter Weller of ROBOCOP fame (but who also directed an Elmore Leonard film adaptation) raiding the Royal e Golf Hotel wine cellar and treating all writers present to expensive wines evening after evening, Mark Timlin returning from the bar so knackered that he took a shower fully dressed to sober up and woke the next morning six hours later still under the shower and with his room flooded, Don Winslow proving he is the funniest man in crime writing (not quite the image one expects from his somewhat dramatic books), Walter Mosley going shoeless and proudly displaying the holes in his socks, the late actress (and Wim Wenders muse) Solveig Dommartin outrageously flirting with every man present while passing through on her own honeymoon, Swedish author Asa Larsson giving an interview on a raised stage and realising too late she had been liberally displaying her knickers to the whole audience and finding the whole thing a delightful hoot, John Grisham giving his Chandler acceptance speech in Italian and revealing later that he had been rehearsing the 15 line opus for 3 months on end with his (Italian) barber, a trip to the top of Mont Blanc when my mobile phone rang just as we were exiting onto the viewing platform at the highest part of Europe simultaneously with Arnaldur Indridason’s phone, as we were both on the same network which was welcoming us into French airspace… Of such small things are memories made.
Over the years, the festival has migrated from an old, crumbling cinema to temporary accommodation in a sports arena down in the valley below and for the last couple of years to a brand new cinema complex with all technical mod cons built specially for the festival, next to the Congress Centre where many of the debates take place. In addition, after the Royal salon the majority of the literary events have moved to the Jardin de l’Ange, a purpose-built Alpine wooden structure with an unbeatable view on the mountain peaks. And my expanding waistline is a side tribute to the quality of the food in the local restaurants!
This year’s festival took place between the 7th and 13th December and proved to be one of the more convivial ones, thanks to guests like James Sallis, New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey (HEAVENLY CREATURES, UP IN THE AIR), my colleague in crime Adrian Wootton, Jonathan Rabb, Matt Haig, Tarquin Hall, Italian authors Simona Vinci, Andrea Pinketts and Gianni Canova, German writers Sebastian Fitzek and Zoran Drvenkar, Jonathan Trigell, Spaniard Juan Madrid and of course, this year’s winner of the Raymond Chandler Award, the avuncular Cuban author Leonardo Padura, whose British publisher from Bitter Lemon Press flew over to celebrate with.
Best film was given to Hong Kong director Johnny To for VENGEANCE; the jury’s special prize was awarded to BLACK DYNAMITE, a delightful parody and homage to 1960s blaxploitation movies directed by Scott Sanders written by and starring Michael Jai White, both of whom were present throughout the festival. There was an audience award for Daniel Barber’s HARRY BROWN, starring Michael Caine, and acting awards were shared between Serb director Emir Kusturica for his first film as an actor in L’AFFAIREFAREWELL and the petite, but fierce and scary French actress Florence Loiret-Caille for her role as a semi-incestuous sister in LA DAME DE TREFLE. Florence and I shared a car back to Geneva airport at the end of the festival and in the flesh she is as shy and kind as she is possessed and demented in the movie. Ah, acting!
So, if you happen to be in Europe around Courmayeur festival time, I urge you to give it a go. The setting is divine, the event is a must, and entrance to all films and literary events is totally free, so certainly something to consider. See you there in 2010 for the festival’s 20th anniversary?
MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI ( his Wikipedia entry is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim_Jakubowski ) is a publisher – coming soon MaxCrime -and former owner of the world-famous Murder One bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road. As well as being a writer and editor of various cult publishing imprints, he is acknowledged as a disturbing and controversial voice in contemporary fiction. His collections have sold massively, he is a regular on TV and radio where he is an expert on crime, erotica and film, and a Guardian columnist. He is literary director of the prestigious CRIME SCENE festival held at London’s NFT in July.
“An unholy mixture of Jim Thompson and American Psycho” – Time Out
“It memorably evokes the ghosts of Cain and Hammett and delivers some of the scariest writing since American Psycho” – City Life (UK)
“The hard sexy edge of Henry Miller and the redeeming grief of Jack Kerouac.” – Mystery Scene
“Proudly pornographic… the most comprehensive rendering of S&M variations ever to make it in to mainstream fiction” – The Literary Review
Life in the World of Women (1997)
It’s You That I Want To Kiss (1998)
Because I Thought I Loved You (1999)
The State of Montana (2000)
On Tenderness Express (2001)
Kiss Me Sadly (2002)
Confessions of a Romantic Pornographer (2004)
(with Mike Ripley):
Fresh Blood Set (2001)