When it comes to the movies, those who Cannes do.
Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By SARA LODGE
For twelve days in May, if cinema is your business or your passion, there is only one place to be.
The city of Cannes on the south coast of France has, since 1946, played host to a film festival that is also a marketplace where some 60 percent of international business in the film industry is annually accomplished. Like the mass migration of wildebeest across the plains of the Serengeti, or the flight of hundreds of pink flamingos across the salt marshes of the Camargue, the descent of 10,000 filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, distributors, sales agents, actors, financiers, and studio executives, together with 4,000 press, and another 100,000 wannabes, cinéastes, partygoers, and star-spotters, is one of the great spectacles and curiosities of the natural world.
Life is one long promenade: and so is Cannes. The town is dominated by a wide seafront boulevard, the Croisette, which curves like an Oscar-winner’s smile from the pass-controlled Palais des Festivals, with its long, red-carpeted steps, to the public Cinéma de la Plage, an open-air arena that screens free classics. Crowded even at two in the morning, the Croisette is a fashion runway, a nightspot, a circus, a grandstand from which the curious peer into beach bars like Terrazza Martini, where, perhaps, the cast of Oliver Stone’s new movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Michael Douglas, Carey Mulligan) are holding a private party.
This is a human safari. You will see no more than a leopard skin dress disappearing into a glade of cameras, a herd of newsmen being pursued by a traffic cop, the blond mane of a cinematic lion stalking across a savannah of red carpet. But the crowds are fascinated. The very elusiveness of the game is its attraction. And since nobody can be quite sure who is who in this crush, it’s open to anyone to walk like a giraffe (high heels, big sunglasses) or play the puma (tuxedo, black shirt, big sunglasses) as they pass the palms, the panhandlers, the panpipe players, the Grand Hotel, and the glittering shopfronts of Balenciaga, Prada, and Christian Lacroix.
In the window of Balenciaga at Cannes, I spotted a glorious dress: black, with a low neckline and layers of ruffle descending from hip to floor. On close inspection, you could see that each ruffle was edged with the open teeth of a hundred zippers. And that dress is the spirit of Cannes: froth with bite. For the festival is a desperate round of parties, where the trappings of entertainment conceal frustration, hunger, and cutthroat competition. For the tourist, the safari is glamorous; for the creatures who live in the film jungle, it is a place of frantic courtship, struggle, and narrow odds of survival.
The strange thing, to a newcomer, is that many people who come to the Film Festival barely see a film while they are here. In fact, the number of films in the Grand Jury Competition—which, like Napoleon, is mercurial, political, and short—never reaches much above 20. Of course, there are many side events, with screenings taking place all over town, but the slimness of the Official Selection is telling. The Palais des Festivals embodies the French view of film as high art: a medium worthy of government sponsorship, select presentation, and serious cultural discussion.
If, however, with your festival pass, you walk through the Palais, with its screening rooms named after Debussy and Buñuel, you discover that what lies behind it is the Film Market: the low commercial underbelly to the high art façade of Cannes. The Film Market consists of hundreds of stalls devoted to particular production companies, all busily touting their wares (“Action, Samurai, Erotic!” as one Japanese firm proclaimed). Behind it is the “International Village,” a long row of shiny white tents inhabited by the National Film Board of every country from Lithuania to Egypt. It is behind the Palais that the real scramble to gamble occurs. Most of the people here are looking for tax-sheltered investment in film as a high risk, high return product. They don’t give a damn about art.
Beyond the International Village is the marina, where the celebrity yachts are docked. I saw Jean-Claude Van Damme’s unobtrusive little craft, which has a stuffed lion on the deck and looks as if it could, in an emergency, evacuate the entire population of Belgium. I saw a bronzed Italian actor clad in only swimming trunks and sunglasses, leap aboard a yacht called Low Profile, accompanied by six suitcase-bearing minders. However, many of the vast and shiny cruisers seemed unattended. It occurred to me that it would be easy to slip aboard and stow away: Hide in a cupboard and come out with your script at night and make the captain and (film) crew read it. This is known as movie piracy.