The first rule of making the most out of attending the Cannes Film Festival: Learn how to tie a bowtie -- or buy a damned clip-on.
After spending nearly half an hour in the bathroom of my Cannes apartment futzing around with an uncooperative piece of black fabric, consulting a few YouTube videos (for the record, the best ones I found are this one and this one) and finally arriving at a reasonably passable imitation of what a bowtie should look like, I felt qualified enough to make my next move of the evening: attend the festival's opening night dinner.
The awkward bathroom fumbling that preceded my trip to an elite gathering: That's the paradox of Cannes. Like "The Great Gatsby," which opened the 10-day affair Wednesday evening against a backdrop of pouring rain, Cannes celebrates the superficiality of posh, luxurious spectacles while forcing its guests to struggle through the chaos. And then, once everyone settles down, the movies take center stage.
Cannes is ritual. Before each screening, a digital vision of a red carpet staircase ascending to the sky, set to a snippet of Camille Sain-Saens' ecstatic "The Carnival of Animals," establishes a heavenly tone. Thousands of onlookers crowd the streets outside the hulking Lumiere Theater, where stars stream into the movies showing throughout the day and night. Straight-faced men clad in grey suits guard every entrance, stopping even the most pristinely dressed festival-goers to make sure they have a ticket, a badge, or someone important to vouch their privileged access. Cannes forces you to prove you belong.
But what about the movies?
Sometimes it's easy to forget they're here. At the same time, Cannes manages to use its lofty exterior as a framing device to discuss cinema as an artform; that perspective is often subsumed by the transient, good-bad polarities that define many viewers' interests today. The Cannes competition is typically a mixed bag, but it's intended less as a statement about the best movies being made today and more as a showcase of the possibilities from around the world. Artistic director Thierry Fremaux singles out directors like the Coen Bros., James Gray and Francois Ozon (all screening work in competition this year), places them before bright lights and forces them to prove their worth. It's basically a two-week treatise on the auteur theory accompanied by bountiful champagne.
There was more than enough of both quantities -- auteurs and champagne, that is -- when I arrived at the opening dinner, which took place at an expansive tent adjacent to the Palais des Festival. Guests shook off their drenched umbrellas and sauntered into a bright white room littered with boldfaces, many of whom came straight from the "Gatsby" premiere. At one long table, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire exchanged pleasantries with Fremaux, while Harvey Weinstein worked the room.
A few days ahead of The Weinstein Company's plans to repeat last year's strategy of revealing clips from all their 2013 titles in a huge media event, Weinstein had plenty of projects to talk up. He paused at table where Nicole Kidman, a member of the current Cannes jury headed by Steven Spielberg, sat with a few cohorts to discuss whether she should introduce footage from "Grace of Monaco," the Grace Kelly biopic in which she stars. Then he said hi to Spielberg. Fremaux made an effort to join the circle before a security man stopped him. Fremaux muttered his title with a smirk and the blockade melted away. Even Cannes' bosses sometimes need to hustle to get the access they deserve.
Director Lynne Ramsay told her fellow juror Ang Lee about her short film, "Swimmer," screening at Directors Fortnight. "I'll send you a link to watch it," she promised.
Nearby, a prominent trade critic looked down at the dessert of the evening, a brownie ignited by the waitstaff before serving. The burning mess brought back unwelcome memories of the most shocking scene from "Heli," Mexican director Amat Escalante's unnerving kidnapping drama, which contains an uncensored scene in which an abductee gets his junk set ablaze. "I want to know what Spielberg thinks of that," the critic said while the director hovered nearby. He'll have two weeks to mull it over.
Spielberg himself looked more astonished than anyone to find himself in a leading role at the festival, which has screened several of his blockbusters over the years but never seen any of them placed in official competition. "This is my first time doing something like this!" he beamed with childlike glee. Fremaux introduced him to the chef of the evening before standing on a chair and encouraging the entire room to applaud their meal.
At my table, I found myself seated next to an affable older man named Jean Castarede, who has written a book about luxury in France. I asked him if my tux skills matched his standards. "Yes, it looks fine," he deadpanned, then reached into his pocket. "But you should buy one of these clip-ons."
Outside, the roar of explosions tore through the air as the annual fireworks celebrating the beginning of the Cannes marketplace filled the sky. "Wow," an onlooker said. "Even during the rain?"
Yes, even during the rain. At Cannes, nothing stands in the way of tradition.