A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Your name will get mangled by well-meaning Francophones, your feet trampled on by many a high heel—and yet you will ask for more. The Cannes Film Festival, currently in its 68th edition, is as much a yearly celebration of the art of cinema as it is a survival sport, and a bonding ritual for those of us who come here every May to watch movies and provide coverage.
Arriving at Cannes for the n-th time is a bit like entering a “Groundhog Day”-like loop of repetition that is at once exasperating and reassuring (“It’s still crazy, all’s well with the world!”). The fun starts right upon stepping off your plane: since Cannes itself doesn’t have an airport, most guests arrive in Nice, about 15 miles east up the lovely Côte d’Azur. In order to get from Nice to Cannes as a member of the press, you need to take a bus, with a voucher provided by the festival—which seems perfect only until you realize just how infrequent the service is and just how many fellow passsengers will try to get on the same vehicle with you. Since Cannes is generally about survival of the fittest—people push and fight in order to get to screenings and/or to secure good seats—it’s only fitting that one of the first things you see is a small crowd of supposed adults fighting tooth and nail to get on the first free bus and avoid taking one of the ridiculously overpriced Cannes-bound cabs.
Assuming you did get on the bus and your luggage didn’t get squashed by other people’s bags (those tuxes are not as light as they seem), you arrive at the Palais des Festivals—the famed temple of cinema that holds most of the screenings. The press know its structure intimately and could write a book on which escalator to take to cut through crowds, which point serves the best and fastest free espresso, and which piece of the ever-crowded press room’s floor offers the finest seat for you to knock out your next piece.
Before any of this happens, though (that is: before the festival becomes a frenzied hub of activity to rival Times Square on a busy night), there’s still one more ritual to perform: picking up your badge. While uneventful in itself, it is one of the key moments at Cannes, determining just how high or low you are perched within Cannes’ ruthless pecking order. The color system of badges is best explained here and the moment you learn what color you are this year is akin to seeing the next 10 days of your life appear in a crystal ball. I can still remember my first festival spent in endless lines as a “yellow” rookie—there are few sensations as poignant as being shut out of a screening you lined up two hours in advance to attend, believe me.
And yet, just as you’re about to think twice about coming here next year, something magical happens—familiar faces start to appear. One after the other, your fellow film critics and moviegoers from every corner of the globe start to materialize out of nowhere and greet you with a smile (or a groan: “Got demoted to blue, argh!”). There’s the young critic from Romania whom you first met in Berlin; there’s the California-based writer with whom you Twitter-bonded over your hatred of “Whiplash”. There’s the bearded Mexican guy you never actually met but recognize from all your visits before, and there’s the funny-looking French lady who once saved you a seat during an insanely crowded screening of Desplechin’s latest (what was it called again…?).
All of a sudden, you realize that as much as you may hate the place, the crowds and the general insanity of it all (and make no mistake: you will hate it at times), here at Cannes you are also a part of a community. We may still be uttering out jetlagged curses at the chaos, crowds and exorbitant prices of food that will make us all go broke in no time, but still, we are in it together, driven by our love of a medium that can be as capricious and demanding as the most high-maintenance of spouses. Still, that same medium’s power to enthrall is such that—for two caffeine-fueled, sleep-deprived weeks every year—it makes several thousand people repeatedly sit still for hours and take in the beauty and the passion for which they hunger. And then argue about what they saw, again and again. And then write about it, while hurting their backs on that damn press room’s wooden floor. Come to think of it, it is a kind of wonder—which is why I am not the only one at Cannes tonight saying: “Feels good to be back”, even as I set my alarm clock for 6AM in order to make it to tomorrow’s first morning screening without missing breakfast.
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