The Palais des Festivals, the central hub of the Cannes Film Festival, a massive bulwark of filmmaker-named halls and pristine movie screens, is about as close as you can get to a cinema temple. To enter, you must ascend red-carpeted steps.
But in the past 16 months, Cannes’ Palais hasn’t been home to the movie frenzy it hosts annually. Last year’s festival was postponed, then canceled. The Palais, instead, was lined with hospital beds in the early months of the pandemic. Earlier this year, it was turned into a mass-vaccination “Vaccinodrome.”
On Tuesday, the Cannes Film Festival, delayed from May to July, will finally open its doors for its 74th and maybe most critical edition. Its famed red carpet will again flood with stars. The screens will be relit. And, maybe, the movies will rekindle some of the romance and grandeur that went dormant this past pandemic year.
“It’s a kind of pilgrimage or Mecca, and even more so this year,” says Mark Cousins, the Scotland-based filmmaker whose “The Story of Film: a New Generation” will premiere opening day on the Cannes beach. In the Palais, Leos Carax, a director whose freewheeling fictions reflect real movie dreams, will debut his anticipated “Annette,” a musical with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
The annual pressure of mounting Cannes, arguably the world’s most celebrated film festival and a global standard-bearer for the big screen, is always massive. The last Cannes, a good one, launched Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” the Cannes' Palme d’Or winner before it took best picture at the Oscars.
But this year, after much of the movie world went into hibernation, Cannes' greatest duty may be jolting moviegoing awake. Announcing the lineup last month, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux declared: “Cinema is not dead.”
“When Thierry Frémaux called me after he had seen the film, he said: ‘We’ve been asleep and we want to wake up and pick up where we left off,’” says Cousins, who will also premiere a documentary on the British film producer (and Cannes regular) Jeremy Thomas. “I just can’t wait for the overload, the deluge, the exhaustion of Cannes.”
Cannes will be the first major film festival to attempt an essentially full edition. There will be no virtual component. No empty seats between (masked) festivalgoers. Attendees are required to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 every 48 hours. Ready or not, the throngs will be back on the Croisette, the French Riviera city’s main drag.
But at a festival that prides itself on rigid, clockwork rhythm, much will be different. Many from abroad won’t be able to attend due to travel restrictions. Stunts, like when Sacha Baron Cohen rode a camel down the Croisette, may be in short supply.
On the red carpet, some age-old traditions have been axed for safety, too. Fremaux typically meets all filmmakers and casts on the top of the Palais steps with the standard European greeting of pecks on each cheek. But under COVID, it will be a Cannes sans kisses.
France, which has more than 111,000 COVID-19 deaths, has eased most restrictions in recent weeks as cases have fallen and vaccinations have surged. Like most countries, it’s also confronting the rise of the delta variant.
Many of the filmmakers coming to Cannes have experienced the worst of the pandemic. Celebrated French director Mia Hanson-Løve lost her father to COVID. But coming to the festival to premiere her “Bergman Island" (starring Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth and Mia Wasikowska) doesn't worry her.
“I’ve experienced the reality of this on a very brutal and interior way,” says Hanson-Løve, speaking from Paris where she's shooting her next film. “It doesn’t mean I’m not unaware or unconscious. I’m still in grief. I don’t want my answer to seem light, like someone who doesn’t care. What I mean is: I’m not afraid. Maybe because I’ve looked at death in the eye.”
“I cannot live in fear for so long,” she adds. “I can still be sad. But I cannot be afraid anymore.”
This year's lineup includes many of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world — many of whom are Cannes regulars. Among them: Wes Anderson ("The French Dispatch"), Asghar Farhadi ("A Hero"), Paul Verhoeven ("Benedetta"), Jacques Audiard ("Paris, 13th District"), Bruno Dumont ("Par un Demi Clair Matin") and Sean Penn ("Flag Day"). Some of the movies, like Anderson's, were official selections last year for a festival that never happened.
Twenty-four films will vie for the Palme d'Or, to be decided by a jury headed by Spike Lee, the first Black person to ever hold that position.
Some of the entries were shot back in 2019, others were products of the pandemic. Sean Baker will premiere in competition his much-awaited follow-up to the Oscar-nominated 2017 film “The Florida Project.” He spent two years on a project that was about to shoot in Vancouver when the virus ruined that chance.
"This film wouldn’t have happened without COVID," said Baker, who describes “Red Rocket” — about a washed-up porn star returning to his Texas hometown — as “a darker, raunchier comedy."
The shoot was difficult. False positives nearly shut them down. But Baker believes “the crazy energy of the moment and the anxiousness” was caught on film. He spoke from Los Angeles while hurrying to finish the film's mix in time for Cannes, still agog that he's in competition with “some of the most renown filmmakers that have ever walked the earth” — like Verhoeven and Dumont, directors whose work influenced “Red Rocket.”
“The first thing I thought about was that cliche: You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.”