On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Festival de Cannes, Lee Marshall offers a snapshot of the world's most famous film festival and how to experience it.
It's a mild May morning in Cannes, at the midpoint of the world’s most celebrated film festival. Despite the early hour – 8am – La Croisette, the glamorous French resort’s beachside promenade, is far from empty. There’s a sprinkling of well-preserved (or well-lifted) locals jogging in designer tracksuits or walking their Afghan hounds. But mostly the human fauna is made up of two migratory species. One is a shabby phalanx of film critics, hurrying towards the vast Grand Théâtre Lumière inside the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès for the 8.30am press screening of the day’s big competition film. The other, far less purposeful in their progress, are the partygoers. They went to a party last night where they met some people who dragged them to another party, where some other people knew about an afterparty; then somehow everyone ended up at the late-closing Petit Majestic bar, where a Swedish film distributor mentioned a workers’ café not far away that opened at 6am where they could go on drinking. Now, at last, they’re heading home... if only they could remember where home was... and what happened to their shoes.
Like the elephant in the fable of the blind men, the Cannes film festival is an entirely different beast according to how you approach it. Many who come for the 12-day event never see a single film – they’re too busy partying, doing deals, babysitting celebrities and their kids or buying or selling films that wouldn’t make the social selection in a million years – films with titles like Attack of the Killer Donuts.
Serious cinéastes mutter about the distractions of Cannes’ frivolous side, about the way commerce taints the sacred purity of, say, a three-hour Romanian film about an old man dying (yes, like Attack of the Killer Donuts, this really exists). But the festival, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this May, knows that each of these strands needs the other.
Cannes wouldn’t be the world’s leading film market if it weren’t for the kudos conferred by the art-house films in its official competition and sidebar sections. The stars wouldn’t turn up without the presence of the world’s media and vice versa. And without the glamour of the event – and the chance for the CEO to meet the latest Hollywood starlet on his yacht or at the beach party he’s funding – the festival and the industry wouldn’t attract the sponsors it needs to survive. This symbiosis has made Cannes the undisputed king of film festivals – so much so that it doesn’t even need the word “film” in its official name, Festival de Cannes.
The first festival, held in 1946, was a relatively low-key affair, a defiant show of normalcy in a France still hurting from the trauma of war and occupation. The budget was so limited that Cannes’ municipal gardeners were drafted in to make up for a shortfall in projectionists. Lack of government funding in those early years led to the wholesale cancellation of the 1948 and 1950 festivals. But Cannes built authority and media recognition and was soon challenging Europe’s oldest major film festival, Venice, for the top spot.
There have been hiccups along the way. The 1968 festival was shut down by a filmmakers’ collective, spearheaded by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in solidarity with the students’ and workers’ protests that were sweeping France. And there were frequent tugs of war over films that governments didn’t want the rest of the world to see. One of Gilles Jacob’s first acts on being appointed festival director in September 1977 was to obtain a clandestine copy of dissident Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s latest film, Man of Marble, which was programmed at Cannes in 1978 as a “surprise screening”. The Cannes veteran repeated the trick two years later with Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, taking the precaution of locking the projection booth from the inside, in case the Soviet delegation tried to break in.
Such censorship battles are by no means a thing of the distant past: in 2011, the Cannes copy of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Tehran – where the Iranian director was under house arrest – on a flash drive hidden inside a cake.
Still fighting fit as it turns 70, Cannes is the alpha and omega of film festivals. But it’s also, as anyone will tell you, one of the most difficult to navigate – especially for non-accredited visitors who are keen simply to see a few films, perhaps swing an invite to a beach party and soak up the atmosphere.
The following nuggets are the result of 15 years’ hard-won experience:
Getting your bearings around Cannes
On the waterfront, the Palais des Festivals houses the main screening rooms, the film market and festival offices. To the west are the yacht marina and the old town of Le Suquet, a restaurant-filled magnet for festivalgoers. East of the Palais is the seaside promenade La Croisette with its grand hotels and beach clubs. About a block back from the sea, the rue d’Antibes shopping area has decent mid-priced cafés and restaurants clustered around pedestrianised rue Hoche.
Where to stay
Luxury palaces Le Majestic, Le Grand Hôtel, InterContinental Carlton and Grand Hyatt Cannes Hôtel Martinez are strung out along La Croisette. The streets behind, around boutique-lined rue d’Antibes, offer more affordable accommodation (though this is a relative concept at festival time).
Hotel prices at well-connected nearby resorts, such as Cannes La Bocca or Golfe-Juan, can be significantly lower. Use the train to reduce costs; Cannes’ main station is a five-minute walk from the Palais and coastal trains are frequent and cheap. If you’re A-list, you’ll insist on Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, where, even outside the festival, the cheapest suite is €560 (about $770) a night.
Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Antibes, just outside of Cannes
Where to eat and drink
VIPs head out of town to, say, celebrated seafood restaurant Tetou (about €120/$165 a head without wine) in Golfe-Juan, where everyone from Kirk Douglas to Angelina Jolie has come to sample the bouillabaisse and nobody, however famous, is exempt from the “no credit cards” rule. Another gourmet refuge, upscale country restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins (about €90/$125 a head without wine), reopened in July 2016 after a makeover gave it an edgy, modern look.
In Cannes, contemporary eatery Mantel – Table 22 (average €65/$90 a head without wine), in the photogenic old town of Le Suquet, is the fiefdom of Alain Ducasse-trained chef Noël Mantel, who keeps things admirably simple in market-fresh dishes such as grilled rock octopus or a creamy veal-sauce risotto garnished with truffles. Finally, a closely guarded secret: friendly brasserie Aux Bons Enfants (prix-fixe menu €29/$40 a head), in a pedestrian lane close to Forville Market, does refined Provençal cooking at a knockdown price – for Cannes. There’s no phone so you need to swing by to book.
There are numerous bars in the Suquet and rue Hoche areas but everyone ends up at the Petit Majestic (6 rue Tony Allard), a scruffy place behind Le Grand Hôtel that becomes a loud street party every evening from around 11pm as a heaving mass of rosé-quaffing humanity spills out of its cramped interior.
Tetou attracts A-list diners. Photo: Elan Fleischer
Held at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden- Roc, the amfAR Cinema Against AIDS gala (amfar.org) is the hottest ticket in town – good luck with that. Most industry and studio parties take place in the beach clubs along La Croisette, where spare invitations can sometimes be blagged at the door from generous guests (don’t even try charming the bouncers – they’re immune).
Visiting Cannes outside of festival time
Going to Cannes when the film festival is not on has its advantages, including lower accommodation rates – at, for example, chic boutique hotel Five Seas, with its A-list rooftop pool. For sparklingly clear spring days and a less-crowded mid-season vibe, the week in early May before the festival starts is a good bet – as is, for late-summer warmth, the second half of September, once the Cannes Yachting Festival boat show has wrapped up.
The latter is just one of several trade fairs that attract flocks of delegates and allow hoteliers to hike prices (check dates at destination-cannes.net/ congress). When the glamour of La Croisette pales, make the 15-minute ferry crossing to the Île Saint-Honorat (cannes-iles delerins.com), the smaller of the two Lérins Islands, where an abbey was founded in the fifth century AD and which still hosts a community of Cistercian monks. After a walk around the charmingly rural island, visitors can lunch al fresco at its only restaurant, La Tonnelle (tonnelle -abbayedelerins.fr; weekday prix-fixe menu €27.50/$38 for two courses), on gourmet dishes such as tagliolini with lobster, enjoyed with a bottle of the friars’ award-winning wines. Think of it as monasticism, Côte d’Azur style.