10 Things We Know About Cannes

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For the next 12 days we will be blithely blogging about the Cannes Film Festival. Many of you know this movie bash in the South of France as the place where, each May, celebrities slowly walk up the 24 red-carpeted steps to the Palais des Festivals, their every mili-move snapped by paparazzi and cheered by thousands of onlookers greedy for a brush with greatness. But what is the history of this place? What are the rules? Is it fun?

Here, then, is a Cannes for Dummies, compiled by two people already in the thrall of their 33rd Festival. Since 1973, we've been covering Cannes for one publication or another — TIME, of course, being the most distinguished —and have learned a few things along the way. In subsequent blogs, we'll get back to the movies, the parties, the interviews, the prizes. But for just this once, catch up on the basics.

1. It's still THE film festival

Cannes, a Riviera resort town just down the road from Nice and Monaco, was to have its first festival in September 1939. Germany's invasion of Poland cast a pall over Europe, and the festival was postponed until 1946, the year after the end of World War II. It took a break in 1947 and resumed the following year, now in May, now an annual event. (The 1968 edition was aborted midterm, in response to the Paris street revolts.) In its early days Cannes and Venice were the only major film festivals; now every town larger than Podunk has a yearly movie bash. (Note to editor: Please check to make sure Podunk doesn't have a film festival.) Berlin may be more serious, Amsterdam hipper, Sundance more focused, Toronto more congenial. But Cannes, with its 40,000 visitors from around the world, remains the gold standard for movie conclaves.

2. It's two, three, many festivals in one.

From the thousand or so submitted each year, the Festival's programming chiefs, Thierry Fremeaux and Gilles Jacob, choose about 20 films to compete for the top prize, the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm), awarded on closing night by a nine- person Jury of directors, actors and other film folk. (Chinese auteur Wong Kar-wai is the 2006 Jury President.) Fremeaux also picks the entries for a sidebar program with the rather diffident name Un Certain Regard (A Certain Look). Other films, like tonight's Festival opener The Da Vinci Code, are shown out of competition. There's a selection called The Critics' Week and, a quarter-mile down the beachfront Croisette, the utterly independent Directors' Fortnight. That makes for about 100 films its selectors think you can't miss.

3. It's not for you.

Nothing personal, dear reader, but Cannes is not a democratic festival like Toronto, where every film is open to the public. You literally can't buy a ticket, though you might be given one, if you implore the desk clerk at your hotel, or perform some congenial act on an assistant producer. Cannes is a convention for movie professionals. Besides the movies chosen by programmers and critics, there's a free-for-all Film Market where anyone can rent a screening room and peddle his product to distributors and reviewers. Some are here to buy, some to sell; others, like the 4,000 journalists, come to get the word on Cannes and its movies to a waiting world. Whatever our specific functions, we cheerfully connive in promoting the medium and ourselves.

4. Stars matter.

Cannes is essentially an art-film festival. The majority of films shown in the competition will never be shown in the U.S. But from the '50s, when a young Brigitte Bardot practically burst from her bikini, Cannes has meant movie glamour, and that means movie stars. We've seen Madonna, Clint and Arnold literally stop traffic, as crowds clog the Croisette to catch a glimpse of the stars' red-carpet promenade. It was the same today, when a flying wedge of security guards hustled Tom Hanks into the Da Vinci Code press conference past a couple hundred photographers. This is catnip to the Festival administration, which gets free worldwide publicity from the stars. No one is more eager for Angelina Jolie to have her baby early than Fremaux; if she does, Brad Pitt may show up here for his movie A Scanner Darkly.

5. It's sunny

The weather is usually fair and mild with intermittent patches of gorgeousness and a lovely breeze; the Mediterranean Mistral here is more a whisper than a roar. For a break from the films, take lunch al fresco at a café across from the Palais and gaze at the beautiful people walking by; Cannes at Festival time has the world's densest patch of pulchritude. Or, if you want to run up a bill higher than the French national debt, sip a kir on the terrace of the criminally posh Majestic Hotel and watch the glitterati glide past; many of them are housed there for the fortnight But critics can't dawdle — there's a 3:00 screening of that Romanian film that everyone (some guy you overheard on the street) is talking about. If you come home with a tan, you've been playing hooky.

6. …and cher.

As in trés chèr. No resort town is dirt-cheap, but Cannes has been getting more expensive — cher, as the French say — through no fault of its own. The Euro, whose exchange rate five years ago was under a dollar, is now a pricey $1.28. Don't despair. You can find many an excellent dinner for less than $40. And your transportation budget, except for getting from the Nice airport to Cannes and back, is exactly zero. Every hotel is within walking distance from every screening and nearly every party. For the rare out-of-town soiree, you ride with the other press types in a chartered bus.

7. It's hard work ... no, really!

Festival veterans of a certain age (and we are) remember when Cannes moved at a more leisurely pace. After a couple of morning movies, one took a salade nicoise lunch at a beach restaurant, then rented a mattress and sunbathed for an indolent hour. The films then were part of a comprehensive Riviera experience: visiting the medieval town of St. Paul de Vence, seeing the Miro and Matisse works at the Maeght Museum, roller-coastering on Provence's precarious cornices. No time for that any more. Our schedules are busier than a big city mayor's. We are slaves to the five-film-a-day schedule, the press conferences and interviews. Of course, no one who's not in Cannes will feel sorry for you. "You're on the Cote d'Azur — don't complain." (We're not.)

8. You must speak the language of Cannes…

English. The French may grumble about Hollywood's hegemony, but they are sensible hosts. They know that English is the lingua franca of the entertainment world, and they will indulge your ignorance of their language. This is a big change from the early years; it's said that Eric Rohmer's divinely talky Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's) in 1969 was the first competition film shown with English subtitles. Now all films in the official selection — the competition, Un Certain Regard and the special selections — are shown in English or with English subtitles. In the film market English is even more dominant; the salespeople want to speak their customers' language.

9. Go to the head off the class.

For journalists, a rigid class system applies. Press passes for movie admittance come in four colors: white, pink, blue and yellow, in descending order of éclat. The white card, the carte blanche, gets you into all screenings early. The pink people have to wait a bit longer. The blues are relegated to the balconies of the larger auditoriums. (Fremeaux, back when he was a journalist, held a blue card.) And the yellows — well, they're there to make the people with blue passes feel better. Somehow, we got lucky. We've carried the white card for ages, and are forever grateful.

10. Learn humility.

Humility through humiliation, that is. No matter what color your card, or how long you've been trudging up those Palais stairs and flashing your pearliest smile at the blue-coated security guards, there's always some party you can't sneak into, some venue you will be barred from (like today's Da Vinci Codepress conference). The signs read "Complet," which is French for "Get lost." Considered coolly, these aren't personal slights. No movie facility, not even the 2,400-seat Lumière with one of the world's largest screens, can contain 4,000 journalists, plus all the appropriate filmmakers and their retinues. Someone has to be left out. And if there were not too many people, there wouldn't be enough. Cannes would slink into anonymity and irrelevance.

So we show up a half-hour early for the big movies, chat with our film-critic friends, compare notes, plan the next day of too many screenings that, by the Festival's end, are never quite enough. For us, Cannes is the beginning of cinema's liturgical year, our favorite rite of spring, a time for total immersion in international cinema, at a 12-day party (with lots of work, mind you) on the Côte d'Azur. We adore Cannes.

Next: Cannes's First Really Good Movie >>