In the days leading up to the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival, I begin to wonder: Am I willing to risk becoming grievously ill in the name of cinema? COVID-19 numbers are steadily climbing across Europe, with the mysterious Delta variant seeming to evade the vaccines more successfully than its older, weaker brethren; meanwhile, I am readying myself to sit in crowded, windowless rooms for 12 days straight with thousands of strangers whose vaccination status will remain unknown to me and many of whom are French, i.e., give no fucks. As I roam New York City buying integral supplies (KN95 masks and vegan-leather miniskirts), I send no fewer than 600 panicked messages to my patient editor, imagining all of the ways I might die on the Croisette directly in front of Tilda Swinton.
Somehow, I arrive in Cannes, courtesy of a flight on which I’m seated by a mopey Scandinavian teen who coughs on my head and an Uber driver who exclusively plays deep-house Coldplay remixes. In the weeks before the festival, attendees had received exactly one (1) email from the Cannes press office about COVID protocols, written in the opaque and lilting style of all Cannes emails, which tend to evoke an image of a French person laughing maniacally and smoking three cigarettes while typing. “You may enter the Palais ONLY if you can provide a vaccination confirmation,” it begins, “(if you come from the EU).” I read the email many times, then replied, asking if I was to understand that, because my vaccine was not administered in Europe but rather in the filthy trenches of America, I would be required to take COVID tests every 48 hours, despite its being the exact same vaccine they were administering in France.
Four emails and three weeks later, the press office confirmed that yes, everyone who is not blessedly European will be getting tested every 48 hours in a free on-site facility requiring advance scheduling on a website my laptop would subsequently recognize as malware. Later, when I show up to the festival-sponsored tent to muster several milligrams of saliva and drool them into a tiny tube, I think primarily of my oral surgeon, who only days earlier had yanked a spontaneously decaying wisdom tooth from my mouth and specifically instructed me not to spit during recovery. I explain this to the test administrator, who is happy to instead give me the most brain-probing nasal PCR I’ve received in my whole COVID life. I test negative. This doesn’t actually matter, except to me, because they only check these results at random.
Cannes has long been the most glamorous and most insane of its category, a Byzantine maze of retrograde fashion rules and hierarchical regulations meant to create and sustain an overarching sense of individual defeat and unworthiness. It’s kinky, really. Ultimately, it succeeds each year in encouraging a sort of universal Stockholm syndrome among its confused and jet-lagged attendees, who find themselves desperate for more pain and rejection in the hopes of glimpsing the back of Bella Hadid’s head 600 rows in front of them. But this year, it all feels particularly bizarre, more snarlingly intense even than the French men in tuxes who harangue you for a ticket to the gala screenings as you walk into the Palais des Festivals. It is as if everyone has agreed (sans me) to pretend everything is totally normal in the interest of preserving some kind of cinematic dignity that has almost been lost — and that, in fact, returning to deifying celebrity as a concept above all else will somehow save us from the possibility that things might go back to being bad. Nothing has changed at Cannes, exactly, and that’s the problem: Nearly everything has remained the same, despite that whole international mass-death event we’re still in the middle of. I can’t stop thinking, What in the European fuck am I doing here?
The Cannes opening-night gala is a screening of Leos Carax’s Annette, a film about how Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard give birth to a puppet and attempt to turn it into a lucrative financial export. Everyone who attends is required to wear black tie and suppress their human instinct to survive. I put on a black dress and red lipstick and head to the Lumière auditorium, passing the COVID tent on my way. Outside it, a woman in heels is openly weeping. Gendarmes wielding rifles (to prevent COVID) waltz cheerily in front of the red carpet, where Driver and Cotillard will soon arrive, unmasked, to wave at a bunch of fans and photographers who are required to wear masks. I stand there for a while, watching beautiful women try not to sweat in loofahlike gowns. One of them argues with a staffer about having to put on a mask inside and ultimately prevails. Another wears a hat shaped like a candle. Helen Mirren shimmies to the cameras, smirking Britishly; Jessica Chastain, grinning widely, signs a few autographs. All of this is scored by Dean Martin and Line Renaud’s “Relaxezvous,” which is a song about relaxing because everything is great. After a few minutes, a staffer sternly informs me I am not allowed to watch this display and ushers me inside. As a result, I miss the auspicious arrival of Bella Hadid.
Inside the theater, I’m directed to a seat at the highest point of the balcony, roughly 500,000 feet above sea level. I’m surrounded by coutured French people of all ages, few of whom are wearing a mask and some of whom cough nihilistically into the air. I wonder if my desire to stay alive is American exceptionalism. The ceremony itself is equally vertiginous. A stream of unmasked celebrities takes the stage to say various things about movies and one another. Pedro Almodóvar welcomes Jodie Foster, who’s receiving an honorary award for being Jodie Foster; Jodie Foster speaks fluent French for many minutes about the honor of receiving her Jodie Foster Award; Spike Lee expresses a desire to “speak French like Jodie Foster,” who returns to the stage and speaks more French. She is one of the only speakers to address all of the annihilation we’ve experienced as a globe, albeit briefly. “Lots of us have spent the year shut up in our little bubbles and others were faced with suffering, anxiety, pain and mortal fear,” she says. Many strange onstage jokes follow about the mask mandate. “It’s complicated to know who is hiding behind the mask,” says one of the speakers in a confusing attempt at levity and perhaps inadvertently explaining all of human behavior.
Bong Joon Ho, always a breath of fresh air, shows up and explains, somewhat bewilderedly, that he’s there because the festival asked him to “bridge the gap” between 2019’s event (at which he won the Palme d’Or) and this year’s. “I have the impression that there was no gap,” says Bong. “I simply have the impression that the festival couldn’t take place one year, but I don’t think the cinema ever stopped per se.” Everyone onstage talks a lot about the Gap, sort of like it was the Rapture, insisting that even though it was a Gap, it wasn’t actually a Gap — that we can pick up right where we left off, that cinema can and will survive, that the most important thing is getting back into the theaters. Years from now, we won’t even remember the Gap. “What was the Gap, Mom?” a little French child might say in the year 2050, although in French. His mother will shush him. “There was no Gap, mon chéri,” she’ll say, staring off into the middle distance, smoking three cigarettes.
One of the French speakers muses on the power of the theatrical experience. “Maybe we’ll be different at the end of the festival,” she says. “That’s the aim of a film.” I make a note to ask myself how different I am in 12 days. After Annette ends, Adam Driver sparks up a cigarette inside the theater during a five-minute standing ovation (which has now become the standard for every Lumière screening, rendering the very concept meaningless; perhaps Driver, understanding this, was primally driven to smoke). I head to the “intimate” after-party on a rooftop nearby. I’ve now been awake for 30 hours, which is neither here nor there but maybe important for context. When I arrive, the bouncer asks to see my American vaccine card, despite the fact that it has been declared fundamentally useless to the festival. Fortunately, I have it with me, having anticipated these sorts of ever-changing fantastical whims.
Usually there’s a heavy party scene at Cannes — cocktails on the beach, passed apps on little bar-side tables, dancing in an area heavily roped off from Leonardo DiCaprio, whose back you can sort of see but who is mostly obscured by the lurking silhouette of Quentin Tarantino. This year, the beach is relatively quiet, with dance floors unilaterally banned. I understand this to mean that there are either fewer parties or that people are just having them anyway and only inviting the roped-off people. The latter turns out to be the case, which makes perfect sense for Cannes — the festival gets off on exclusion, and COVID seems to be another way for it to cultivate a sense of sweaty striving among its attendees.
In a halfhearted attempt to maintain some sense of what the fest is calling its “health-and-safety protocol,” the Annette after-party is serving no food, though the alcohol is flowing freely. As such, everyone is wasted and looking over their shoulders, wondering when a famous person might show up so that they can act like they don’t care that said famous person is in attendance. No famous people ever show up. The bar is crowded with drunk people smoking at one another, screaming over the melancholy sounds of “California Dreamin’.” I can’t drink yet because of my tooth situation, so I simply watch them. A nice woman I’ve just met in the elevator tries to hand me a drink, and when I explain I have to wait a few days, her friend launches into a slurred explanation of the theory of relativity. “It’s all relative,” she concludes. “Have alcohol.”
The next morning, I order an iced coffee at a café, and they instead give me a little silver bucket of ice in which to pour a cup of piping hot coffee. I drink the lukewarm coffee out of the bucket. When the server arrives at the table to take my food order, she laughs in disbelief. I try to switch the coffee back to the cup but it’s too late. She knows I drank out of a little ice bucket. In the wake of a Tuesday-evening news story suggesting that France is on the verge of a dangerous fourth wave driven by that pesky Delta variant, I decide to give the smaller press screenings a shot, hoping my fellow neurotic journalists will be more likely to comprehend their mortality. I am correct about this, for the most part, though I still find myself next to the occasional Frenchman whose mask is hanging around his neck.
That night, I’m invited to a cocktail reception at the Scandinavian Terrace, where the famed Scandi Joachim Trier is being celebrated for his new movie, The Worst Person in the World. I eat vegetarian sushi and drink my first glass of wine in a week while chatting with some journalist and publicist friends about our confusion over every single thing that is happening. The mood is placid, and the ground is covered in AstroTurf. At any given time, there are maybe 36 people at the party. “It’s different from being French,” says a woman giving a speech about the region’s cinematic exports. “But we feel we have a lot to offer.”
That day, Deadline reports that three COVID cases are popping up per day at Cannes; the festival denies this and says the number is zero. I get an invite to a luncheon being held in a few days that reads, incredibly, “After those long lockdown periods that have been plunging the world into a deep crisis, the Cannes Film Festival’s comeback in its original form also announces celebrations and joyous occasions that go along with it even though caution and physical distancing must continue because our long fight against COVID-19 is unfortunately far from behind us.”
I head to another party, this one hosted by A24 on the beach, to celebrate After Yang, a movie about a robot who malfunctions and subsequently ruins Colin Farrell’s life. The film’s stars file into the party, save for Farrell and Justin Min and Sarita Choudhury, who are not at Cannes for reasons undisclosed but probably self-preservation related. Jodie Turner-Smith shows up in a sort of dominatrix-couture situation; Haley Lu Richardson stands nearby in a flower crown and white dress. Someone asks me if she is Florence Pugh, and for a moment, I don’t know.
The vibes at the A24 party are the most reasonable I’ve encountered yet: low-key but genuinely fun, with several dumpling options available and no walls. Nearby, the film’s 9-year-old star, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, smiles for selfies with various adults. “I knew COVID was serious when we started having nicknames for it,” says a man I’ve just met near the dumplings. “Like, ‘Corona.’ ” Crystal Moselle, the director of Skate Kitchen and HBO’s Betty, stops by the circle of people I’m standing in and grabs a few boxes of the fries that are being passed out, all of which have pools of ketchup in them but only at the bottom. By the time you get to the ketchup, most of the fries are gone. I study Crystal’s subtly sparkly tooth jewelry before she walks away to talk to someone who has something to talk about other than this ketchup situation. A few minutes later, Turner-Smith places a pillow on the floor, kneels on top of it, and begins DJ-ing from a laptop. Nobody invades her space, and I feel, briefly, like we may someday attain some kind of gentle equilibrium as a species.
By 1 a.m., I am exhausted from dumplings and my reintroduction to alcohol, but I hop into an Uber to go to a villa party for the film Cow, Andrea Arnold’s documentary about, well, cows. I urgently need to know if there will be cows at the villa. At the massive wrought-iron door, my temperature is taken, and I’m asked to show my vaccine card. The space is decorated like it was abandoned in the cocaine ’80s. Roughly 200, or maybe 400, people stand around a gigantic glittering pool and dance sleepily on a (banned) indoor dance floor. Nobody famous shows up, which at this point makes a lot of sense. There are, of course, no cows either, but there is a statue of one next to the pool. I walk over and touch him on his cow leg, which is solid and cold. I get a glass of wine in a plastic cup from a person who may or may not be a bartender, and I spend most of the party waiting in line for the single bathroom, thinking about my complicity in upholding a culture of wealth and arbitrary worship that has no interest in sustaining anything but itself.
The next day, news will break that Cannes is now allowing non-EU citizens to get a vaccine health pass so that they no longer have to get tested every 48 hours. Shortly thereafter, news will break that, actually, no, they are not doing that, sorry.
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