It sounds inhumane, like something the bad guys in a spy movie might do to get our hero to give up intel: sleep deprivation, often stretching up to 24 hours at a time. Food comes at odd intervals, often of a meager quality and eaten ravenously while standing. You work until your brains turn to scrambled eggs, and eventually come to distrust your own thoughts. At a certain point, it’s just a battle to stay conscious.
But hey, if you’re going to be subjected to a gauntlet of physical and psychological exertion beyond what any mortal human can stand, there are certainly worse places to be than the French Riviera.
Covering any major film festival is an exercise in exhaustion, but Cannes justifies the effort more effectively than perhaps any other. Situated in a small harbor town in France’s Côte d’Azur, the Cannes Film Festival is the one place where the solitary, sedentary, unsexy work of a film critic feels glamorous. The Official Selection screenings all take place in a gargantuan complex called the Palais des Festivals, which means that after they’re bombarded with high-grade European sadness, attendees can walk out the door and right onto pristine Mediterranean beaches. Palm trees shade the boutique outlets (Gucci, Fendi, Chanel — oh my!) lining the Boulevard de la Croisette, the inspiration for the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or top prize. Once the day’s work is done, the press corps scuttles into whichever restaurants might still be open to decompress with rosé and world-class baguettes. It’s a good gig.
This emphasis on presentation sometimes goes to comical, distinctly French extremes. A rather European obsession with status governs the logistical side of business, with all press sorted into one of four color-coded castes dictating level of access. (Having skipped the festival last year, I was summarily penalized with a bump down to the second-lowest level of coverage. Cannes coordinators, if you’re reading this, please don’t get mad and give me an even worse badge.) Nobody’s allowed to set foot on the evening red carpet unless they’ve got the requisite black-tie tuxedo or gown-and-heels combo. The press screenings are a bit more low-key, allowing in modestly-dressed schlubs such as myself, but one still gets a sense of muted resentment from the multilingual festival staff. Which, honestly? Entirely fair. They’re all better-dressed, better-looking, and better-smelling than I am. Game recognize game. Or, uh, jeu reconnaître jeu.
But spending a fortnight immersed in French culture is without a doubt one of the festival’s greatest perks. In the checkout line at the local Monoprix supermarket, a woman hears me speaking English and asks if I’m from Britain, to which I reply that I’m American. She wants to know which part, and when I tell her that I live in New York, she excitedly asks, “Do you know Barbra Streisand?!” I tell her that of course I do, because that feels like the right answer for the moment, and in response, she begins belting “People” at the top of her lungs. No offense to Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War was great and everything, but this remains the highlight of my time at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
Being around a dense concentration of movie types guarantees at least a handful of memorably bizarre encounters such as this. In the middle of the night, while waiting for the last bus back to the adjacent town of Cannes La Bocca where the adorable cat Leeloo waits at my Airbnb, I see a woman sprinting down the street while clutching a pair of high heels. Two nights later, a visibly inebriated man walks past and hands me a small card reading “Do you feel happy about your life?” without a word. I make an effort to chat up everyone who crosses my path, whether that’s on the bus or in one of the many, many lines that a critic must wait in if he wants a decent view of the screen. Mostly, I meet earnest-faced students laboring as studio interns in exchange for passes to a big premiere or two. I am routinely amazed at the dumb things that these students are willing to be heard saying. I’d imagine that a long, successful career awaits the Californian kid who described one film as “thematically dope.” I am horrified when an Italian critic that I have never met before correctly identifies me with “Wait, did The Rock once tweet about you needing a girlfriend?”
In contrast with the everything-all-of-the-time chaos of a Toronto or Sundance, Cannes does leave ample time to savor these little snatches of life beyond the auditorium. Every morning starts bright and early at 8:30 a.m. with a press screening of one of the main Competition films, and there’s generally another in the evening, with sidebar films and entries from parallel sections such as the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week taking up the afternoon. The timing is such that an intrepid moviegoer can maybe squeeze in two screenings during the afternoon, but most settle for three-movie days with interludes of wandering to break up the steady onscreen diet of austerity.
Having not travelled much as a youngster, I’m in constant thrall of all things foreign or exotic. This isn’t my first rodeo — it’s my second rodeo, having already covered the festival once before in 2016 — but there was still so much to discover in and out of the Palais. I find the language barrier endlessly amusing; while American vape stores always seem to be full of gross dudes with goatees, I presume that Vape D’Excellence Palais Smokee is an establishment of great taste and refinement. I catch myself wondering what the management of Daddy’s Bar were going for when they settled on that name. I spend upwards of half an hour browsing a shop selling T-shirts emblazoned with incoherent combinations of English-language words such as “VERY DON’T” and “KISS ARMS” and the painfully close “HAVE MILK.”
That is nothing, however, compared to the manifold wonders of the Marché du Film. In the basement and winding halls of the Palais, dozens upon dozens of studios and nationally subsidized film programs set up booths advertising the latest projects up for purchase and distribution. It is, for the most part, a bazaar of expensive garbage. Write it off as bad graphic design if you like, but the posters for these movies look surreally bad, like, “joke from 30 Rock” bad. A few personal favorites: Selfie From Hell (self-explanatory), a Chinese cop comedy called Fat Buddies (tagline: With Super Size Comes Super Responsibility), and a little something called Avengers of Justice: Farce Wars. It appears to be a parody of Star Wars, Suicide Squad, The Avengers, Justice League and at least three others things. It stars one of the guys from The League. The tag line is “Pretty Recently, In A Galaxy Really Close…” I must see this film.
Cannes is also the nexus of global film culture in less ignominious ways. There’s a certain thrill to knowing that you’re there at the world premiere of a notable director’s latest work, and that you’ll be a part of the corps that first sets the direction of opinion on it. It’s a privilege to enter a theater unencumbered by hype, to go into a film by Lars Von Trier or Gaspar Noé with no idea what the hell you might see. There’s no greater pleasure for a film critic than to turn to a respected friend and find that he thought the self-evident masterpiece you both just saw was a casserole of flaming trash. Spirited, civil debate flourishes in a pressure-cooker environment such as this in a way that it simply can’t on the arid hellscape of Twitter. Which is my buttoned-up, professional way of saying that there are friends I really only get to see at things like this, and it’s nice to catch up.
Sitting in the Nice airport, I caught myself getting verklempt, and not just because I was entering hour 36 of sleep deprivation and had nothing in my stomach but a cold sandwich from Pret A Manger, Europe’s slightly less shitty answer to Subway. I live in a small, modest apartment on a windy street in a reasonably priced neighborhood. Everything in Cannes feels huge and vivid and, in a difficult-to-define way, cinematic. Picking up the press badge, striding down the red carpet to enter the Grand Theatre Lumière, making brief glorious eye contact with Spike Lee, one gets the sense that they’re at the center of something large and impressive. I’ll concede that I’m easily dazzled, but standing on cool French sand, watching fireworks explode to create a reflective graffiti of light on the inky Golfe de la Napoule below, how could I not be?