At the age of just 36, British producer Jeremy Thomas won the 1987 Best Picture Oscar for his work in bringing Bernardo Bertolucci’s sumptuous epic “The Last Emperor” to the screen.
His has been a golden movie career ever since, producing films from “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” to “Sexy Beast,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Naked Lunch” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” But as Mark Cousins’ affectionate yet thoughtful documentary “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” shows, Thomas has always leax a charmed life — “there was once was a prince,” is how the narration begins — and now Cousins is along for the ride.
Quite literally. Because one of Thomas’ annual traditions is to drive from his Oxfordshire home all the way down to Cannes to arrive at his usual suite at the Carlton Hotel in time for opening night. Cousins joins him in the passenger seat, taking his cameras (and us) with them on Thomas’ pilgrimage to the 2019 festival.
You couldn’t really get a more self-referential Cannes movie than “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas,” which premiered in the Cannes Classics section here, a tribute to Thomas’ status as a festival fixture and legend. The documentary shows the producer in his hotel taking meetings, the sparkling blue Mediterranean in the background, going up the Palais steps and entertaining friends and clients at his daily lunch on the Carlton Beach. Thomas stands there Canute-like as one of the traditional May thunderstorms blows in, images that serve to remind you how much cooler the May edition of this festival can be compared to the swelter of this year’s delayed July version.
Thomas is a Cannes legend, a regular in the Main Competition where his penchant for films that explore the boundaries of sex and violence have often landed him in controversy of the moral kind in the UK. There’s a long sequence in the doc dedicated to the furor around Thomas’ work on David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” which ended up being banned in certain cinemas in Britain on the grounds of depravity.
The pair discuss movies on their drive, along with Thomas’ love of fast cars. The conversation also delves into the producer’s inspirational partnerships with directors, including Nicolas Roeg, with whom he made “Bad Timing” (“a tempest of sex and death”) and “Eureka,” and Bertolucci, with whom he also made “The Sheltering Sky” and “The Dreamers.”
Cousins provides his familiar critical musings over clips of Thomas’ work — “Jeremy Thomas’ films make your head explode” — and even brings in a few unexploded talking heads that include Debra Winger and Tilda Swinton, who labels Thomas as an outsider artist: “He’s a pirate and he encourages us all to be pirates,” she enthuses.
Like Cousins’ other cinephile doc at Cannes, “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” which was afforded the honor of unofficially opening the 2021 edition, the Thomas film is split into thematic sections looking at sex, politics, death and stars.
Thomas grew up on film sets. His father and uncle — Ralph and Gerald — were hugely successful producers and directors, making the iconically British series of “Doctor” films and “Carry On” comedies. But for a man steeped in film history, he still gives little away. A few anecdotes about Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando or David Bowie dot the doc but gossip clearly isn’t Jeremy’s thing. “I love cinema too much,” he muses rather wistfully. “My head is full of nothing but cinema and it has taken my life over.”
With Cousins’ wry thoughts on the films and some reflection of the meaning of it all, “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” provides a colorful and entertaining canvas for some beautiful and beautifully set-up movie clips — you want to rush out and watch all of them again. It looks at the role of producer as enabler and collaborator, and Thomas is an unusual talent in this regard, able to imprint a kind of authorial stamp on his films even though he only ever directed one himself (1998’s “All the Little Animals” — which showed at Cannes, of course).
Cousins doesn’t touch on the money side of things, which is somewhat frustrating: There’s clearly a lot at stake there, we’re dealing with a top producer and Thomas has surely handled that aspect brilliantly and has become wealthy, in an unassuming way. Perhaps his own brush with mortality after miraculously fighting off pancreatic cancer in 2018 has slowed him down. “I found the pot of gold,” he ponders, “but the gold wasn’t everything.”
So this warm, intelligent and diverting film leaves the gold to concentrates on the art, and on the storms and the sex and the glamour and the passion of a man who just wants to let other people tell stories — even his own story.