cannes 2021

The Hottest Ticket at Cannes Is a Clean Spit Sample

On-site COVID tests, QR code chaos, and bare faces inside make for an eventful pandemic-era film festival. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

How much saliva can you produce in 30 seconds? I admit, this is not a question I had ever asked myself prior to this week, but that was before I came to Cannes for its 74th annual film festival and found myself taking a COVID test via saliva sample every 48 hours, and finding out the answer was: not enough. For those of you familiar with the more jarring nostril-based method, the process goes like this. You move your mouth around for half a minute, like you’re chewing without food. This produces saliva, which goes into a test tube. How many times do you have to do this to obtain the required 1 mL sample size? For me, it was three. Not the worst 90 seconds of spit-swapping I’ve ever had, but also, not the best.

For American attendees of the 2021 Festival de Cannes, the French event has become an odyssey of spit. The noun, that is; not the verb. Never the verb! Spitting introduces bubbles into the equation, bubbles that increase the volume of your sample and fool you into thinking you have provided the requisite amount of saliva, when in reality you have not. What you are supposed to do is gently drool into the vial, letting the spit escape your lips like a lover’s whisper. Thankfully, there are signs that explain all this.

Wash your hands. Photo: Nate Jones

Cannes has always loved a hierarchy, to sort and select among the thousands of supplicants who arrive at the Riviera each year. Indeed, that’s part of the whole Cannes experience for journalists, to find out whether you are a striving Pink or a humble Blue. So the news of how the festival would handle the COVID era was a reveal I awaited as anxiously as the full competition slate. Think of the opportunities to categorize — masked or unmasked, vax’d or unvax’d, friendly neighbors from Europe or embarrassing cousins from overseas.

Before Cannes began, rumors swirled among the U.S. press and industry that the festival would not be accepting the American vaccines. This turned out to be true: For the purposes of Cannes, any attendee who lacks an EU Digital COVID Certificate must be treated as functionally unvaccinated. Even the Excelsior Pass, which Andrew Cuomo worked so hard on, doesn’t count! Thus the saliva tests, which, as the festival’s press office cheerily promised, would be “completely free of charge to both French and foreigners,” and “totally painless” to boot. Take one every two days and you’re allowed access to the Palais, the festival HQ that’s home to press conferences, maps and schedules, and sweet, sweet Wi-Fi — provided you test negative, of course.

This is easier than it sounds. To embark upon this journey is to enter what a film critic might call “a darkly comic satire of contemporary techno-dystopia.” You can’t just walk in and get tested; you need to pre-register online to obtain a QR code. Click the official link provided by the festival, and you’ll often get a malware warning. (The trick, people say, is to use Safari.) Once you manage to take the test, you should receive your results in an email, but you can only download them as long as you have the password. The password should be the first four digits of your last name and your birthdate in “DD/MM/YYYY” style, though that doesn’t always work. If it doesn’t, don’t fret: A few hours later you’ll get another email with the results, which you’ll access through the web site. You don’t get a malware warning this time, but you will have to sign in using two-step verification. Don’t get the code sent to your phone number, it simply will not arrive. Instead, have it sent to your email. Aren’t you already in your email app, and won’t leaving it mess up the sign-in process? Yes. That’s why it’s important to have your computer nearby. You’ll get the code on your laptop and enter it on your phone. This will let you finally download the PDF with your results. By this point, it’s been around 24 hours since your test, which means you get to do it all again tomorrow.

The writer and his spit. Photo: Nate Jones

I can hear the sound of tiny violins playing as I type, so I will add that it is of course very nice to be here. The movies are good and the people are beautiful. I suspect there wouldn’t be half as much grumbling from the American contingent if there was a sense that standards were equally strict for everyone, which — welcome to Cannes. Or if they made any sense in general. Why test for access to the Palais, but not access to the actual theaters? Masks are technically required in all indoor settings — many signs mandate as much — nonetheless mask-wearing in theater remains spotty. One example of the chaos that has ensued: As the cast of Annette marched into the Grand Theater Lumiere for Tuesday’s opening-night screening, they huddled briefly outside the door, unsure of the protocol. Marion Cotillard fiddled with a mask, but was seemingly persuaded it was unnecessary. They all strode in, bare-faced, among thousands of strangers. In the audience, the vast majority of the leading lights of European arts and culture were sans masks, too. When Cotillard, the world’s most famous moon-landing skeptic, is the only person taking sensible precautions, you know you’re in trouble.

(It’s worth noting however that at the Annette press screening I attended, almost everyone wore masks, as did roughly 95 percent of the audience at Wednesday night’s premiere of Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary. And before the lights went down at the press screening for Val, a staffer tapped a maskless guy two seats over and politely told him to put one on. So maybe it was just opening-night fever?)

I could say more, particularly about Cannes’s new pandemic-era digital ticketing process, which has worked well enough for me, but has inspired so much anger elsewhere that I spied one reporter angrily informing festival staffers that he and his colleagues were about to rise up in revolt. But I’ve got to go — another date with the saliva vial awaits. Don’t you miss the days when the only drooling journalists at Cannes were on the red carpet?

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The Hottest Ticket at Cannes Is a Clean Spit Sample