2000s Archive

Cannes Game

Originally Published April 2001
It’s played out at the world’s most fabulous film festival, but, as movie critic John Powers knows, Cannes shines brightest after the stars go home.

The first time I attended the Cannes Film Festival, I stayed at the Martinez, one of the grand hotels that line the Croisette, the palm-lined boulevard that runs along the sea. On opening day, I was heading off to a screening and, after sharing an elevator with Mickey Rourke, made my way through the Art Deco lobby. When the front door swung open, I saw hundreds of fans and photographers straining against guard ropes, desperate to catch a glimpse of someone famous—anyone.

Dudley! Dudley!” a voice cried, and the crowd suddenly began to roar.

But as I stepped from the shadows into the sunlight, the cheers melted into a long, heavy sigh. Smiles turned to glares. Paparazzi lowered their cameras. And I stood there feeling like a fool. They hated me for not being Dudley Moore.

In a way, I could understand their disappointment. Ever since the festival began, in 1946, Cannes has been a shrine to stardom. Merely to say the name is to call up a vanished world that we forever imagine in radiant black-and-white visions of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly (who met Prince Rainier here in 1955), Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot, back when they were as dangerously sexy as lions on the veld. Yet even in our age of watery digital video, when Johnny Depp prefers torn T-shirts to tenue de soirée, Cannes shimmers with inescapable glamour. Limos cruise the Croisette like sharks, flashbulbs turn the city into a blizzard of exploding white light, happy mobs stand on the sidewalks shrieking “Cleent! Cleent!” as Mr. Eastwood saunters up the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals. At Cannes, I’ve attended a black-tie party on the beach at midnight catered by Taiwanese chefs flown in for the occasion, then, ten hours later, gone to the fabled Hôtel du Cap for a small lunch with the stars of Pulp Fiction.

Cannes’s organizers carefully cultivate this image of elegant high style, but the sophistication comes with more than a tincture of sanctimony. The festival was originally conceived in 1939 as an antifascist response to the filmfest in Venice, and though war delayed its launch for seven years, it has basked in its moral authority ever since. Today, Cannes prides itself on not genuflecting before the rampaging vulgarians of Hollywood even as it avidly courts their presence. In truth, the festival’s air of high-minded hauteur is something of a sham. Cannes reminds me of those starlets whose topless photographs on the beach are an obligatory feature of media coverage. As a newcomer, I was startled to discover that those young beauties aren’t really sunbathing. Practical women, they peel off their tops for the camera, then quickly put them back on. The Riviera can be chilly in May.

The festival cleverly practices the same sort of calculated exhibitionism. For all its movie stars and palaver about cinematic art, Cannes is essentially a glorified trade fair whose headquarters, the Palais des Festivals, is a sandy-pink monstrosity half-fondly known as the Bunker. Upstairs, the Grand Théâtre Lumière may be offering the world premiere of an ultra-refined competition film by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, but descend into the bowels of the building, and you discover the dark truth of international cinema—the cheesy, greedy, shameless Cannes Market. Forget about art. Forget even about Hollywood. Here, you find the things that never make The New York Times or Entertainment Tonight. Sad-eyed reps for Balkan film industries handing out cheap brochures, posters for deliriously uncopyrighted Third World knockoffs—The Matrix 4—and stills for action pictures starring the relatives of B-list stars. In small showrooms, scores of distributors openly scrutinize the pornographic DVDs that make more money than the whole Taiwanese film industry ever could. The market is world cinema’s throbbing id, and its tireless hucksterism carries over into the streets. Back in the mid-’90s, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis caused gridlock by throwing Planet Hollywood T-shirts to a surging mass of thousands. A couple of years later, an electronic billboard for The Spy Who Shagged Me was planted just outside my hotel window. Hour after hour, late into the night, Austin Powers kept blaring, “It’s Cannes, baby ... It’s Cannes, baby.”

It certainly is. And this head-on collision of the high and the low, the graceful and the tacky, makes the festival utterly exhausting—the sensory onslaught goes on 24 hours a day. When you tell people you’re going to Cannes, they think that you’ve got it made, that you’re somehow wandering into La Dolce Vita. But though Fellini’s film did win the festival (and gave us the nifty word paparazzi), covering Cannes is not exactly like splashing in the Trevi Fountain with Anita Ekberg. It’s about spending 12 days in a media madhouse where starstruck throngs turn a 100-yard walk into a 20-minute slog, grown men have fistfights to get into movies they wouldn’t cross the street to see back home, and 10,000 journalists all battle for the same stories and free drinks.

The festival does what it can to keep things running smoothly. With the sublime sense of rank that typifies the French, journalists are issued badges whose colors announce their status: White is tops, followed by pink, blue, and so forth. These badges determine which screenings you can attend, who goes into the theaters first, even which doors of the buildings you’re permitted to enter. And because they are emblems of power, they carry a startling psychological charge. When I was lucky enough to be upgraded from pink to white—carte blanche!—I was shocked by my newfound allure: The Palais’s stiletto-eyed guards treated me more courteously, and women eyed me with a bit more appreciation. But the true glory of a white pass is that it lets you go into screenings before anyone else, so you can grab a seat right on the aisle: The real professional at Cannes always wants to be able to make a quick getaway.

Subscribe to Gourmet