As far as the quality of films is concerned, few in their right minds would deny that Cannes is the best festival in the world. There may be good Cannes and disappointing Cannes. But what is indisputable is that no other festival has the same reputation in the hairy world of film as art.
It is also one of the most difficult to negotiate. You can make horrible mistakes, like going to a party on the night of the first competition film because it was only a small Rumanian effort only to find it wins the Palme D’Or. Or missing the last film from Belgium to discover it was by the Dardennes brothers and the winner.
The programmers themselves sometimes make mistakes, and you find a superb film tucked away somewhere in the Certain Regard section which should have been given a competition slot. And there are films within the competition which can only have been awarded their places because of political pressure.
There are all sorts of disappointments at Cannes, from unreliable weather to days when the programme is hopelessly congested with films by directors that have to be seen. There are times you can’t get in because you have the wrong pass. Others when you wish you hadn’t queued for half an hour to get a seat, or when you can find nothing coherent about a great film in your press box.
Sometimes you have to write so fast that you have to miss the last reel to get your review in. There is nothing quite like Cannes to fray the nerves. But then there is nothing quite like Cannes full stop.
There was a time in the not too distant past when you could meet a great director or a well-known star strolling down the Croisette and have a coffee with him or her. Now these people are called “talents”, are tucked away somewhere you can’t get hold of them unless you run the gauntlet of the many PRs who guard them. Half an hour with a group of others is the most you can expect and if one of the group asks silly questions the result is often useless.
If Cannes is now a unique amalgam of art and commerce, it often seems that commerce is the inevitable victor. This may be sad for old-timers who remember gentler times, but it is perhaps, inevitable and hardly the Festival’s fault. What it has to do is achieve a workable balance so that those who come to see the films and those itching to touch the stars have a reasonably satisfactory time.
The fact that the papers, magazines, television programmes and bloggers are progressing down rather than up-market is another fact of life the festival has to deal with. Hundreds of people come to Cannes who never see a film but are simply there to schmooze or get into a party. Those who come only for the movies are now probably a minority.
This is true of other festivals besides Cannes but the festival’s pre-eminence only underlines the fact that things are very different nowadays. And, of course, very much more expensive, since the locals, suddenly harried by the milling throng, put their prices up considerably.
Many of the hundreds of freelances, and there are more and more now, probably feel lucky if they can sell enough to their various outlets to break even.
You don’t set out for Cannes without a certain kind of excitement tinged with dread. Is it going to be a good or bad Cannes for you?
All this renders those at the Festival trying to satisfy as many of the thousands of visitors as possible into considerable difficulty. The fact is that almost everybody thinks they are more important than they are and needs (a) a better pass (b) a larger room and (c) a more subservient attitude.
This is particularly true of at least some of the critical community who adopt an attitude of being hard done by with little idea of the pressures the Cannes Press Office is inevitably under. But, when all is said and done, things have improved a lot in recent years and there is now no real need to arrive carrying a large bouquet or box of expensive chocolates to get some attention.
Even the men at the doors of the screening rooms are more polite than they used to be, and there are no incidents anymore like the one British critic John Gillett faced when he went up to the projection room in the Debussy to complain about the screen being out of focus, and found himself facing an irate man with a revolver in his hand.
There are, however, hilarious moments such as when someone tapped the shoulder of a snoring critic noisily sleeping in the row in front of him and said: “Madam, could you please cease snoring? You’re are waking us all up.” We all get very tired before the end.
Or when, on my way to interview Nicke Nolte, I looked up at the Carlton Hotel’s windows and saw, hanging out of one of them, two rather large bare bottoms. I was afterwards told they belonged to Gerard Depardieu and Nolte who had enjoyed a boozy night together. Whether that was true I know not. But Nolte cancelled the interview. Yes, almost anything can happen at Cannes, and often does. Which maybe why it is still considered the best of its kind in the world. But the most worthy reason is simply that it has the best films and guards them well.