CANNES, France – As celebrities in tuxedos and evening gowns made their way toward the red carpet and fans jostled for photos, a man in a T-shirt looked especially desperate among them. He repeatedly tried to push open a door to the tightly guarded Palais des Festivals, pressing his face against the glass and gesticulating to the security personnel that he needed urgent access.
The man – who identified himself only by his last name, Brahiman – had just missed his appointment for a second coronavirus shot at a vaccination center recently moved to a subterranean level to make way for the return of the world’s most prestigious film festival.
“There are people everywhere,” said a sweating Brahiman, in his 50s. “I had to park far away and walk.”
The resumption of the 12-day Cannes Film Festival last week, after a pandemic hiatus in 2020, marks a moment of optimism for an industry battered by closed cinemas and difficult working conditions. For film fans in Cannes and around the world, it also represents a moment of hope that normality – on and off the screen – may be returning.
Unlike this year’s Sundance Film Festival, held online and at satellite venues as vaccines were just being rolled out in the United States, Cannes is fully in-person.
“You can’t really keep the virus out,” one festival participant advised another over dinner. “You just have to follow a few rules and stop being angry about it all the time.”
Beneath the glittering festivities, though, in the underground Cannes vaccination center, French doctors are trying to prevent a deadly fourth wave of covid-19 and another shutdown of the economy and cultural life.
The festival, usually held in May, was postponed to July to allow time for France’s most recent coronavirus outbreak to subside. But it now coincides with increasing fears about the highly contagious delta variant. And continued travel restrictions have depressed attendance. This year at Cannes, 28,000 participants have been accredited, compared with 40,000 in 2019. Hotel rooms are cheaper and more available, even on short notice, than in past years of the festival.
Cannes has often reflected broader societal trends, right from its founding in 1939 as an act of defiance against the Nazis and Italian fascists who had co-opted the Venice Film Festival for their propaganda purposes.
In 2018, as the #MeToo movement raised questions about power and its distribution, the festival’s jury president, Cate Blanchett, led a women’s march up the red-carpeted steps of the palais to bring attention to how few female directors had ascended those stairs.
This year, the festival mirrors the awkward emergence from the pandemic happening in much of Europe and the United States.
As Marion Cotillard, the lead actress of the festival’s opening film, walked into the palais on Tuesday night for the premiere of “Annette,” she initially put on a face mask, then looked confused when others didn’t. She eventually took it off.
The French cheek kiss – “la bise” – is more difficult to spot on the red carpet than in typical years. Saying hello or goodbye can throw off even the most experienced Cannes festivalgoer. Should we shake hands? Fist-bump? Or perhaps only wave?
At the entrances, festivalgoers have to produce vaccination certificates, proof of immunity acquired through infection, or negative test results. Vaccinated Europeans can simply flash a digital health pass – a QR code that’s accepted across the European Union. But Americans, even those who have been vaccinated, still have to submit to a test every 48 hours through their time at the festival. A PCR testing site has movie executives spitting into tubes behind a Ferris wheel.
Cannes Mayor David Lisnard said the rules – based on French government guidelines for large gatherings – should help the city show that a mass event can be “festive while also protecting the health” of participants.
Dogs trained at sniffing out traces of the coronavirus are positioned outside the festival as an additional layer of protection.
Some of the screening venues, though, have direct entrances and aren’t imposing testing requirements or capacity limits. Masks are supposedly mandatory, but that’s been inconsistently enforced.
Some in Cannes are enjoying this year’s more intimate version of the festival – and relishing the chance to interact.
Fans perched in wait on their suitcases outside luxury hotels have had better luck than in the past catching actors for signatures or selfies. The manager of the celebrity-saturated Martinez hotel, Yann Gillet, said the stars staying there seem to “have more time and they have more desire to talk. They are less stressed.”
“I think they’ve been missing the contact with the crowd, with the people,” he said.
“People changed,” assessed Stephan Bender, the interim chief executive of Film France, an agency that seeks to attract foreign film productions to the country.
He said the festival had seemed progressively busier and more frenetic in each of the 20 years he attended. But the pandemic forced a fundamental rethink, he said, looking out onto the Mediterranean Sea and the anchored megayachts in the bay. “A lot of people are saying: ‘I’m not going to have a crazy Cannes with 25 appointments a day. I’m going to have more deep discussions with people – and this quiet Cannes will give me the opportunity to have real discussions with people and to make real connections.'”
But after 16 months of economic uncertainty, some miss the pace of Cannes in previous years.
Monique R. White, senior vice president of distribution at California Pictures, said Cannes is usually a crucial opportunity for her company to sell film rights to buyers around the world. “Cinephiles all come here to Cannes to celebrate film,” she said, calling it “the pinnacle of filmmaking.”
But this year, she estimated that as many as 80% of buyers may stay away because of travel restrictions or the sense that a toned-down version of Cannes wasn’t worthwhile.
White said that she had set up several meetings with potential buyers in the online version of the Cannes film market but that she missed the in-person interactions. “We understand that [the organizers] wanted everybody spaced out, but now it almost feels like the energy level is really low,” she said, standing in a vast and largely empty exhibit hall.
When potential buyers do show up, the conversations are still often dominated by the pandemic. White had just met with French movie distributors who have “so many movies in the queue that they just have to get these movies out before there’s another variant,” she said.
In the Bay of Cannes, the uncertainty that has accompanied the film festival was most visibly on display at night last week. Instead of turning on blinking party lights, many yachts remained dimly lit.
On the southeastern edge of Cannes, the only people partying on the water at 11 one night were four locals in a small motorboat, anchored next to imposing yachts called “Crazy Me” or “La Titude.”
One of the locals, Antony Lapalus, said he frequently hosted Cannes parties as a professional yacht captain.
“Usually during the Cannes festival,” he said, “you got parties everywhere.”
“Everything is changing,” he said, chewing a piece of delivery pizza.