Arriving in Cannes before the festival begins has a few benefits, including time to swim in the Mediterranean and get rid of your jet lag. But my greatest pleasure was simpler: I had nothing to do with the movies for a couple of afternoons.
I got off the bus from Nice on Monday at noon, a full forty-eight hours before the first press screening. Our top-floor flat for the festival was on the west side of town, maybe five minutes uphill from the bus stop at the Hotel de Ville, and less than ten minutes from the Palais. The walk down from what became home—past/through the Marché Forville and around the inactive Ferris wheel towards “Mac-D’oh!” and the always-popular bocce ball sand traps across from Hotel Splendid (say it: splahn-deed!)—became routine. Still, each trip held some hilarious nugget, from a fat rich guy in a Ferrari shouting at traffic to a stick-figure prostitute with a collagen-plump mouth attracting more paparazzi than the star of Miss Bala, an excellent Gerardo Naranjo film playing in the festival, in which a beauty-pageant contestant becomes a drug mule. The bustle coughs up easy targets.
My first festival activity was retrieving my badge. Looking up at Faye Dunaway’s 30-foot face, the symbol of this year’s festival, I wove between aimless tourist groups and disgusted locals, past a stage with a talent show whose participants looked like a church choir in t-shirts. I went into a basement covered in sponsorship banners, found a line that I thought would move, got thirsty, and stood beading sweat for twenty minutes. At the counter, I handed a goateed man a printout with my confirmation numbers. He glanced at it, then gave me back the sheet with that same stare. I tried, “Je crois . . . je crois qu’on ne peut pas . . . imprimer cette papier, uh, sans accrédidation.” Again the blank stare. I looked at his neighbor, who talked with a smile, and saw her with an EU passport in her hands. I fished my US passport from my bag and showed it. This time he nodded, typed something, and, without further discussion, handed me a badge. I turned to leave but then he spoke: “Monsieur!” He handed me a new printout with more numbers and motioned toward another queue on the other side of the basement. I waited, again, for a bag full of programs, press releases, and bad directions that I could have gotten online. The bag, as expected by day five, wound up a mess of frayed seams.
Film festivals are an odd congregation of people by nature but Cannes takes the cake for competing media agendas. There is almost no common ground except for this odd, spectacular event. Every critic brings a different motivation, though not necessarily a different audience, since Cannes coverage homogenizes eyes worldwide. Not every member of the press corps is a critic, either. Some are in town for snapshots, some are television crews, some run other film festivals, some just want some gossip and autographs. While the press constitutes a rough third of the festival’s attendance, there are also the people from the market, the legion of PR professionals and translators, the Cannes cinephiles, and those with “invitations” to individual screenings. But it all comes down to badges.
The secret of Cannes, I learned, is that the biggest barrier isn’t getting accredited or getting the worst badge. Anybody can get a badge if they try. (Really, try it.) The thing that keeps most people out is cost. Food is always going to cost money, and, though you can find deals, fancy French dinners are never cheap. (Eat at La Cave, by the way, if you have the burn.) But the bigger things to save your cents for are travel and housing; unless, of course, you’re lucky (or smart) and you get somebody else to foot the bill.
Like any big institution, Cannes was built and is maintained on a small mountain of bureaucratic nonsense. Being a first-time participant, I was granted the worst badge for print press: Yellow. However, I took it in stride since some luminaries are stuck at the next level, the catch-all Blue, where you can find most of the corps. A rung up is Pink, occupied by a lot of people I did not recognize and a few choice critics and programmers I did; they are the second wave let into the theaters. The first wave is the White-badge brigade, a rarified group that can avoid the sunshine and enter screenings without the risk of spending time outdoors. Ascending this ladder is largely out of your hands. It depends on the press office’s estimation of your coverage (its reach and/or influence) and your bosses’/editors’ ability to schmooze in the right circles. Truth is, a lot of flattery can go a long way.
A press badge of any ranking is better than a market badge since it allows easier access to the festival screenings within the Palais. However, maybe to level the field, the press corps is barred from some “secret” screenings within the Marchais du Festival, which is almost as important as the competition for programmers (and some critics) who did not attend either Sundance or Berlin, since you can see “older” festival circuit fare playing outside the Cannes line-up and still looking for distribution. But the game for press hardly extends to the market unless you need to see some rare thing that may not play in your hometown and just as likely may turn out plain awful because nobody truly “vets” these films. A lot of people walk out of market screenings.
Timing your day is harder than you expect because of the breadth. The screening schedule is no help since there are overlaps all over town, not just within the Palais. The nights are not your allies, either, since drinks are free and getting drunk means forgetting the clock. The clock, then, is no help—it just keeps ticking. The lines are the biggest culprit, though, as they eat the most hours and seem more mandatory/imposing than at other festivals. The fear of missing out guides too many choices at Cannes. But early on you realize (remember?) you won’t see everything—your body will not allow you, the clock won’t either—and you start to manage time by gauging when you should go to sleep. (Sleep’s the only thing you wind up craving; I felt no remorse dozing through stretches of lesser films.)
You start to pace yourself. Like it or not, you’re the tortoise. Or, you should try to be. Your body and your brain will thank you. Nobody talks about just how exhausting it is to stand in one place for hours on end, but I will: it’s exhausting. Waiting in the sun, your brain shuts off, even if you’re writing notes by hand, and your eyes glaze over watching people pretty and ugly alike as if they were the reason you’re in the line. You start to draw little narratives for each of the staff members you’ve begun to recognize, like those peripheral people in college who, no matter that you never exchanged two words, seemed to insist they play a role in your everyday. You take note of their build and you look away to file it, because you’ve closed your eyes and pulled your head straight back so it looks like you’re looking at clouds when, in fact, you’re tracing veins across the red inside your eyelids. You wonder where you’ll sit in the theater, if the eyeline will be good enough, whether the frame will overpower you or seem a television’s size. When you start to move, you know you’ve only got five minutes to find a seat.
Perhaps film festivals are never “about” cinephilia, but they feel like they ought to be. A festival’s a celebration, after all, and I kept wondering, why are we not more thrilled? There are plenty of reasons: sleep deprivation, bad movies, getting a sunburn while waiting in line for a screening only to be denied entrance because there’s no more space for Yellows, not enough food, acidic but crucial espresso shots rotting your stomach lining, slow wifi, sitting inside when it’s gorgeous swimming weather outside. So much of this pageant is not about the movies, but about the event, that the movies are almost a MacGuffin in the narrative of the fortnight. Festivals remind us that they are about selling—filmmakers sell films, critics sells words, the event sells itself to the media.
There are more than twenty screening rooms, or salles, in use within the Palais du Festival at any given time during the first, market-driven half of the festival. I saw movies in four of those, five if you count the Salle du Soixantieme, which sits atop the secondary wing, closer to the Riviera, that houses half of the Marchais.
The biggest, of course, where they hold the evening galas with “the red steps” and all those flashbulbs, is Le Grand Théatre Lumière. It’s the only one with “theater” in the name and I suppose it’s fitting. There are roughly 2000 seats, more than half of which extend to the rafters in the balcony, where I sat. Early entry is crucial because the screen, though impressive, seems to shrink exponentially as you climb those aisles that feel aimed not up but away (the screen’s a vanishing point), to find a free seat. This, of course, is only a problem for the plebes who are granted a Yellow badge. If you’re Pink or White you can enjoy the luxury of the orchestra below; if you’re Blue you’re allowed into those first six to ten rows of the balcony where there are no bad eyelines except from furthest to the sides. Either by luck or idiocy, I was allowed to sit closer, below that magic line manned by women in beige, just once, for a movie I found grating and disappointing, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I only saw 8:30 a.m. press screenings in the Lumière because I did not bring nor rent a tuxedo.
Most press screenings happen in the Salle Débussy, on the west side of the building (west of its primary entrance). A 1000-seat house with much better ratio of screen-to-room size, the Débussy was fine by me, most of the time. I was shut out of a number of Competition screenings due to the hierarchies’ bars to entry, but the Un Certain Regard screenings erased at least one barrier by folding us Yellows in with the Blues, which allowed me to sit in the orchestra, under the screen, for the majority of those presentations.
Within the main building of the Palais, there are Salles A through J on the upper levels between the Lumière and the Débussy. I did not visit any. However, I did see films in both the Salle Bazin and the Salle Buñuel, home to spill-over screenings and later evening screenings and a good portion of the Cannes Classics sidebar. The Bazin is one of those odd rooms with an inverted rake for the first fifteen rows, which makes subtitles impossible unless you sit at an angle, best viewed from seats hugging the wall. It’s hard to get comfortable in there. The Buñuel is only worth it from the center of the room and is best enjoyed from the front row. There are over 200 seats there but I’d say a quarter of them are useless because the angle at the screen from the sidelines is no worse than 80 degrees but no better than 70.
Which leaves us with the Salle du Soixantieme, that odd duck in the back. Rickety and thin like a shack, with air-conditioning like a refrigerator (even at night), the 60eme is hardly a “pure” cinema environment, prone to sounds infiltrating its walls, but I enjoyed every screening I had there except the first, marred as it was by about an hour of sound problems, since every other infringement on the films was either funny or meaningful (one and the same?). At night I heard music from nearby parties, as our Wu Xia screening was peppered by bass kicks, and in the morning I heard the photo call sessions, as my Melancholia screening was encroached upon by the jeers hailed at its maker, Lars von Trier, who, among his other notorious exploits at this festival, had F-U-C-K across the knuckles of his right hand, this fist outstretched in an odd salute at the league of cameras lapping up his latest stunt.
When Lars von Trier called himself a Nazi after those first press screenings, in a fit of stupidity characteristic of Von Trier the showman, the utterance spawned the kind of chatter that typified what I did not like about the mood of the festival. That is, it was another diversion from the movies. I was no great fan of Melancholia but it has plenty to say in concert with plenty of other films at the festival. Most critics compared its cosmic side to that of The Tree of Life—either in favor or against, their opinions were rigid, surface—avoiding what distinguished the films. Melancholia accepts our size (tiny) but it’s a film of rejection, built to privilege our lives as (microscopic) narratives with distinct endings that emerge, or fall, out of centers, us. At its best, The Tree of Life aligns with avant-garde filmmaking to privilege moments-as-glimpses, crafting a grand and active mosaic from innumerable monads where the center never stops moving.
Part of my problem with the festival, and it’s a tidy problem, was that I anticipated a grand and winding story full of memorable incidents (and I can recall it that way if I choose to) but I was greeted by the same odd vacillation between activity and dullness common to everyday life. The difference was this ebb and flow, punctuated at more magnified intervals by flickers of other worlds, refracted me, made me aware I was reflecting on my life as I led it elsewhere. All I wanted in those air-conditioned reprieves was my own reverie. But the pile up of days never stops to allow the elastic stretch of night to restore the order to things.
Before the awards ceremony, the last day was relaxed. Many people played catch-up on competition films they had missed, some slept, a few made time to do laundry. When I’d had enough of Alain Cavalier’s Pater, an opaque if ingratiating “essay” on “being political” in modern France, I sat on the balcony of the press lounge longing for wine, not water. I watched the swarm arrive immaculate in dresses and tuxedos, some of the uninvited holding signs and motorcycle helmets. Rooting in my bag for my camera, I laughed at the torn insides of this free festival tote. It was in such nice shape thirteen days ago. Now it was shambles, a mess. After a shower, heading back to the Debussy to watch the awards, I dropped it in a chute marked “garbage,” where it fell into a refuse bin hidden underground.