You wake up in a panic, a cold sweat. Is your passport in your bag? What’s the flight time? Socks. You need socks. You check your bag again for the passport. Stumbling down five flights of stairs, you hail a cab. The voice of your mother is all you can hear. “France might require a passport at least six months out from its expiration date, and yours only has four months left!” You check your bag for your passport. This is no different from any trip you’ve ever taken. Your hands shake as you enter your reservation number at the check-in kiosk. Cannes. Staring through the window of the parked jet, you flip through the schedule, released only a day before. Not helpful. You listen to the elderly man next to you as he explains his planned three-week long hike through the hills of Spain. The ultimate endurance test, he says. You say you’re about go to a film festival. “You look nervous,” the man says.
From the plane to the air to the Nice airport to a mile-long customs line to the ancient baggage claim to a taxi and its driver who adores Angelina Jolie to the doorstep of an apartment that’s oh-so-French to a screaming woman who reluctantly lets you in despite being three hours late to a futon where you’ll spend the next 10 days of your life back out to the cobblestone streets of Cannes. The Mediterranean air has an instant calming effect. You head into the unknown.
Hordes of people congregate at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a fortress of cinema emblazoned with photographs of an interlocked Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. There are many doors, but only one that will get you inside. The French do lines differently, a laissez-faire twist on orderly queueing. After a few blows to the face, you obtain your badge. There are levels of access that help you identify your place in the world. You are “bleu,” but there are the kings of the festival (“blanc”), the bourgeoisie (“rose avec une pastille”), the upper middle class (“rose”)—and the only tier below you, the groundlings (“jaune”). Now color-coded, you check a map: The Grand Théâtre Lumière, Theâtre Debussy, Theâtre Buñuel, Theâtre Bazin … where are you? With the remaining energy from last night’s airplane half-sleep, you search for Debussy—location of movie number one, Amat Escalante’s Heli. Twenty minutes of searching reveals a line. You don’t know how the system works — is this the right line forbleus? Is this a free-for-all? Are clubbing weapons allowed in this deathmatch? — but you fortify your place in the sea of people and pretend you’re not as “vert” as you clearly are.
Excitement is in the air, the first movie locked and loaded to screen. The marathon of just getting to Cannes is over. A thousand people take their seats, the festival fanfare signals the start, and Heli flickers on to the screen. It’s the story of a Mexican teenager, falling face first into the world of drug cartels. It’s harrowing from the get-go. The titular character watches his sister become entangled with a deranged teenager who thinks it’s OK to steal blocks of cocaine from AK–47 wielding monsters. The gang members track the klutz down—and sweeten the deal by taking the sister and Heli. They’re tied up, taken back to the drug den, and tortured. The sister’s boyfriend has his penis burnt off. Heli undergoes his own set of beatings before being thrown back into real life. Grief, anger, despair, end credits. Heli kicked your ass. You run out the door to find a glass of wine, wondering if you’re mentally capable of being challenged by the world film has to offer.
Day one ends on the Promenade de la Croisette, a beachside stretch of food carts, park benches, and—in the case of Cannes—pop-up nightlife. Fireworks light up the sky. You trace the explosions back to the red carpet, the one from your dreams. Ah, that’s the Grand Théâtre Lumière—glitz, glamour, and stars aplenty. That’s not your Cannes. A look at the ocean, lighting up with the fireworks’ colored reflections, makes that perfectly OK.
You arise at the crack of dawn with the taste of white wine still on your breath. In the morning, the stroll down to the Palais makes you feel like Belle in the opening of Beauty and the Beast. You catch François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (or “The Ozon,” as your wonderfully snobby colleagues might say). It’s perfectly French, the steamy story of a young woman whose sexual passion can only be met by unknown, older men. So she turns to prostitution. Ozon’s style is like flipping through a book of old photographs, glimpses of life that can jump from shocking to warm to humorous to devastating in a moment’s notice. Is it realistic? The point sparks debate, but you were swept up in the young (and beautiful) Marine Vacth’s performance. She makes it realistic. You realize why you traveled hundreds of miles from home to watch movies.
Against better judgment, you wait in line for two hours in the pouring rain for The Coen Bros’ latest. Your lowly place on the social ladder and anticipation demands it. The prioritized mobs of people flood the theater ahead of you, but you manage to be one of ten “bleus” to make it in. Soaking wet, miserable beyond belief, you settle in for Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens’ rhythmic exploration into the ’60s folk music scene has a drying effect. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s intrinsically tied to the Bob Dylan-esque tunes performed by its main character. The trailers made Llewyn Davis look like Forrest Gump for folk, but it’s much more character-centric and neurotic, Oscar Issac spending most of the movie singing or losing faith in humanity. Little hope, lots of laughs. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver pop up to duet a pop number, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and you instantly know what everyone in Brooklyn will be talking about at the end of the movie.
The days ahead are a gauntlet. The Cannes population will draw blood to be the first to see the new Claire Denis film: Bastards. It turns out to be worth the fight—Denis’ latest is a bold riff on the thriller genre, a film that dropkicks exposition out of the picture in favor making its audience play catch up. You walk miles to a hole-in-the-wall theater space to see Ari Folman’s The Congress, a transportive, animated epic that fills your mind with swirling colors and cautionary words of wisdom. Folman pushes his style from the autobiographicalWaltz with Bashir to new extremes, throwing The Matrix, Roger Rabbit, Children of Men, Heavy Metal, and the exceptional Robin Wright into a blender and cranking it to high.
Not every attempt works out. You spend an hour waiting for Clive Owen’s Blood Ties only to see the theater hit maximum capacity (luckily, it played to little buzz). But the miss becomes a hit. You catch a documentary on psychedelic Mexican director Alejandro Jorodowsky and his mind-blowing could-have-been adaptation of Dune. Now you’re barreling through Cannes.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a slick exploitation film that’s completely vacant under the surface. Kristin Scott Thomas finds a way to become Joan Crawford, but karate-chopping Ryan Gosling has only 17 lines and none of them are interesting. Election director Alexander Payne serves up Nebraska, a charming, black-and-white road movie starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern. You’ve always been a fan of Payne’s and Nebraska continues the streak of sharp humor and painfully real characters. There’s talk afterward—does the father/son journey into the past exploit the quaintness of middle Americans for laughs? You throw up a hand in contention, prepared to argue even while seeing the point.
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a mess, but All Is Lost blows you away. It’s so perfectly simple: Robert Redford is on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He’s hit by a storm. He tries everything he can to survive the storm. He’s only one man, but a crafty man. For two hours, he remains silent, spending his energy patching up holes and preparing for the worst. Breathtaking.
You make some discoveries. Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza captures the sprawling landscapes of Rome and juxtaposes it with the sprawling life of its author character. Beautiful on every level. You want to book a ticket to Rome immediately, but … movies. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son wonders what you would do if you had a four-year-old son that turned out to be someone else’s child, swapped at birth. This isn’t even a question in your mind, but for the Japanese couples at the center of the film, it’s a test of everything society has taught them. Touching and provocative. Then comes the must-see of the festival you only realize is the must-see of the festival after you see it. The three-hour lesbian coming-of-age drama La Vie d’Adele sounds like every art house movie that’s ever played in the States, but holy hell — you’re a mess by the end. Everyone will focus on the ten-minute sex scene that acts as the film’s keystone, but there’s so much more: the chaotic life of high school, those delicate transitional moments, the romance that inevitably makes everything more confusing. You don’t join the standing ovation. You start it.
One final night. You gather up your colleagues for a meal that isn’t a gyro or a pizza — the only two foods at Cannes that won’t cost a year’s salary. Foie gras, fine cheeses, steaks, gallons of red wine, talk of movies, talk of parties, talk of Cannes, talk of lives, talk and talk and drink and talk. The sun rises and you need to pack. You cram your life into a suitcase and say goodbye to your apartment. Making your way down giant stone stairs, you attempt to soak in the soul of France before a taxi appears to take you away. You wish you had seen more films (24 isn’t good enough). You consider everything that worked against you over a week and a half.
You wonder if it’s worth it. You’re determined to return to this Mecca. You think you need it. You witnessed magic. You turn back around and look past the driver to see the highway on-ramp ahead. You have a moment of anxiety. You search your bag.
Yes, you have your passport.