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Cannes 2017: How My First Trip to the Festival Convinced Me That Movies Matter More Than Ever

Every part of Cannes contributes to the feeling that movies are worth fighting over and that they’re worth fighting for. Here's what it was like to experience that for the first time.

The scene at the Cannes Film Festival

David Ehrlich

This is how a trip to Cannes begins: You get on a massive airliner from JFK to Nice, a red-eye flight on which dozens of the film industry’s most powerful people slingshot over the ocean while watching “Bridget Jones’ Baby” in monastic silence. When you land, touching down on a thin strip of concrete that juts out of a twinkling azure sea, the airport is so quiet and empty that you fear you’ve arrived a week too early by mistake.

Then you leave baggage claim and all hell breaks loose.

A Beautiful World

Stepping through the sliding doors and onto French soil, you’re immediately confronted by a human funnel of paparazzi, a hundred cameramen crawling over each other for a better look at who’s just arrived — it’s like if Fellini had directed “World War Z.” And yet, for all of the competition and clamor, the photographers look at you with the kind of apathy that’s typically only seen in natural disasters or Republican lawmakers. They’ve been tipped off that jury member Jessica Chastain was on your flight, and you don’t look anything like Jessica Chastain. Especially then.

But everyone is beautiful at Cannes — even the ugly people are beautiful at Cannes. The policemen are beautiful, despite how the noses of their machine guns veer a little too close to your face during bag checks. The women who scan your badges are beautiful, their uniforms finally answering the question: “What might flight attendants have worn on an airline designed by Jacques Demy?” The Nespresso girls are beautiful, handing out free caffeine in the Palais and patiently talking you through the various blends like it’s going to matter when you’re two hours deep into a Ukrainian film about a woman trying to deliver a parcel to a Siberian prison.

The guy brusquely turning you away from the “Good Time” party because you’re wearing jeans is beautiful. “Is not possible,” he said while pointing to my pants, prompting IndieWire’s quick-thinking Eric Kohn to suggest that I run back to our apartment and change into his extra pair. Not only did that plan work, but stepping out onto the star-studded Marriott roof almost made me feel beautiful, too. At least until an immaculately tuxedoed Barry Jenkins helped me put things back in perspective.

But no one at Cannes is as beautiful as Cannes itself. Yes, here’s an IndieWire exclusive for you: the South of France is absolutely stunning. The buildings are rustic, the water is sparkling, and the movies are everywhere. They’re painted on the sides of old churches, they’re for sale in the gift shops, they’re baked into the menus of the local restaurants. At La Piazza, an Italian joint near the old part of town, one of the signature dishes is called “Fettuccini Fellini.

Cannes is a singular mix of high and low culture, of glitz and grime. It’s the only place in the world where people on the street beg for tickets in tuxedoes (because entry to a Cannes premiere is worthless if you’re not following the dress code). On my first trip to the Grand Théâtre Lumière, an early morning ritual for those attending 8:30 a.m. press screenings, I walked past a cut-out of Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor from “Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” That would be a strange thing to see anywhere in 2017, but 15 steps away from the most famous red carpet in the film world, it’s like seeing a statue of Ashlee Simpson outside of Carnegie Hall.

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But a little cognitive dissonance is to be expected when going to see a movie along the lines of that morning’s booking — a Bong Joon-ho film, all of which are madly elegant scrambles of different genres and vibes, and “Okja” is no exception. Bong’s latest is a frequently brilliant ride that marries the adventurous spirit of a kids movie with the slapstick violence of a hardcore Korean thriller. It relies on cutting-edge digital technology to bring its eponymous “super-pig” to life, but there’s something ineffably old school about how “Okja” refuses to decide if it’s rated PG or R. Of course, it doesn’t have to — such are the perks of being paid for and distributed by Netflix. But if there was always bound to be some controversy at the first-ever Competition screening of a streaming title, I was entirely unprepared for chaos that was due to unfold on the Croisette, at “Okja,” and everywhere else.

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