Letter from Cannes: On the Ground at the 76th Cannes Film Festival

The entrance of the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette

After more than five hours of travel, my train from Paris reached Cannes on the evening of May 18th. The jarring opening of the train doors abruptly pulled me out of a heavy sleep. Suddenly, a horde of energetic humans rushed into my almost empty carriage to occupy all the seats. Loud, simultaneous discussions flooded my ears, in all languages. My brain was suddenly trying to process messages in English, Chinese, Spanish, and German… in vain. The new arrivals all wore black lanyards with the words “Festival de Cannes” printed in white elegant letters. Like my new comrades, I was going to stay in Nice for the whole duration of the festival. The hotels, lodgings and rental accommodations in Cannes had been booked many months ago. Nothing was available anymore for the most spontaneous of us who had planned this adventure with a little less foresight.

Day 1: My alarm clock rang at 6:55am. The rule was simple: If you wanted to see a film at the festival, you had to book your seat four days in advance online. If I booked tickets on a Friday, it was for the following Tuesday. To do this, you had to log in at 7am sharp on the Festival’s ticketing website. Each day, nearly 80 sessions were offered. Wanting to attend the screening for THE IDOL by Sam Levinson, I rushed to the 10:45am session. Yes! I got my seat. Hoping to see Wes Anderson’s new film, ASTEROID CITY, I prioritized it by selecting its screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Unfortunately, thirty seconds after the tickets went live, the screening was already sold out. Scrolling on my screen for almost 15 minutes, I managed to find 3 tickets for CLUB ZERO starring Mia Wasikowska, THE OLD OAK by Ken Loach, and the new indie film HOW TO HAVE SEX everyone was talking about. Four seats out of 80 screenings?! That was it?! Were festival-goers that competitive and early?!

Premiere of Bread And Roses directed by Sahra Mani and produced by Jennifer Lawrence. From left to right: Jennifer Lawrence (producer), Dr. Zahra Mohammadi (very active in the documentary), Sahra Mani (director), Thierry Frémaux (director of the Cannes Film Festival).
Premiere of ‘Bread And Roses’ directed by Sahra Mani and produced by Jennifer Lawrence. From left to right: Jennifer Lawrence (producer), Dr. Zahra Mohammadi (very active in the documentary), Sahra Mani (director), Thierry Frémaux (director of the Cannes Film Festival).

 Was I supposed to dress like a diva or would jeans do? I opened my shutters, it was raining hard. Wasn’t it always supposed to be sunny in the South of France? Not enjoying the thought of parading through the deluge in stilettos, I risked underdressing and put on jeans before going to the station where I found my fellow festival-goers. We immediately took the Nice-Cannes train, disrupting the routine of the locals on their way to work. For forty minutes, the train carefully followed the contour of the Mediterranean Sea to Cannes. What a stunning trip! Although looking more like a ride along the Atlantic Ocean in these weather conditions. “You have arrived at your destination,” the train robot intoned. Incredibly thrilled, I took out my umbrella and pulled up Google Maps. I had to go pick up my accreditation at the Gare Maritime. I walked ten minutes to the queue, which ran along a row of yachts by the sea. Producers, distributors, lawyers, actors, and students were again speaking in all languages, including Russian and Arabic this time. I quickly got my badge: “JADE POHREN, FRENCHLY, UNITED STATES, PRESS.” “Thank you miss, have a great festival,” the festival staff member told me. Before I did, I was going to settle down in a café. It was still pouring, and I had to study the program as well as the festival map since the many theaters where the festival films were shown were randomly spread around the city.

I stopped at a very unFrench Starbucks. The place was packed with Americans who were there for breakfast. The French barista spoke to me in English without hesitation. Didn’t I look French? While sipping on my latte, I was already making friends with four women coming from London, New York, Istanbul and Seoul as well as a German-Iranian man. As passionate about film as I was, we all naturally engaged in exciting conversations about the Festival, mostly revolving around the #metoo movement and Johnny Depp’s extremely controversial presence at the festival after his infamous trial with Amber Heard in 2022. The slightly higher number of women, 6 out of 19, in competition for La Palme d’Or in 2023, including 3 French women: Catherine Breillat, Justine Triet and Catherine Corsini. That SCUM feminist activist who had walked the red carpet yelling “stop selling us” with a pregnant belly the day before to denounce surrogacy. I had checked out the SCUM Instagram page to understand why and read: “All surrogacy procedures without exception […] are based on the exploitation of women for their reproductive ability. […] The commercial success of this procedure can be largely attributed to its many clients from the film and media industry, whose economic power allows them to access it before it becoming available to the masses.” In spite of heavy topics, I was feeling enriched from the most multicultural Starbucks experience ever and inspired to start watching movies.

Premiere of The New Boy by Warwick Thornton. From left to right: Warwick Thornton (director), Wayne Blair (actor), Deborah Mailman (actress), Aswan Reid (actor), Cate Blanchett, Thierry Frémaux.
Premiere of ‘The New Boy’ by Warwick Thornton. From left to right: Warwick Thornton (director), Wayne Blair (actor), Deborah Mailman (actress), Aswan Reid (actor), Cate Blanchett, Thierry Frémaux.

Without further ado, I then decided to go see CAITI BLUES, a portrait of a musician living in an artist colony in New Mexico. The screening was taking place at the Alexandre III cinema, so I had to walk 30 minutes to get there. After enduring the pouring rain, construction work, and a CGT demonstration at the bottom of the Carlton, I was only 2-minutes late yet still turned away. I settled down in a restaurant again to anticipate the next session. I scrolled briskly through the online ticketing site. A seat suddenly became available for the premiere of THE NEW BOY with Cate Blanchett! Knowing about the struggle to get seats for screenings with such high caliber celebrities, I took my chance. I booked my seat and walked back the same way I had come from, on an empty stomach. My clothes and my bag were soaked… Oh despair, to see all these palm trees without sun! As if Cannes were trying to console me, I had a central seat in the first row. The best seat in the house to take pictures of the introduction of the film by Cate Blanchett, resplendent in her Louis Vuitton dress. She said about the film crew: “We are all Australian and it is a very magnetic country. There are certain directors who speak not only to the heart of the country that you are from, but also speak to an international audience, and Warwick Thornton is one of those.” His film is a beautiful story about an Aboriginal orphan child joining a monastery in Australia which is run by a nun in the 1940s.

The following Sunday, I attended the MAY DECEMBER press conference with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in a group of 80 early birds while most people were still catching up on their sleep. Evidently, Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without its night-to-night incredible parties in its myriad of luxury villas. However, I didn’t have that very same chance as for KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON. After 5 hours of waiting in the press line, I saw myself rejected with hundreds of other journalists, the room being too small to accommodate us all. Nevertheless, I stayed until the press conference ended to get autographs from Scorsese and De Niro for a French-Italian friend. Meanwhile, I talked to other journalists to kill time, a Mexican-Italian-American-French squad this time. We were now noticing how the presence of African films was stronger in 2023, with more than 15 of them screened thanks to a more dynamic African industry as well as more funds devoted to coproductions between Europe and Africa. We were mentioning films like Banel e Adama by Ramata-Toulaye Sy (Senegal) or Goodbye Julia by Mohamed Khordofani (Sudan).

The end of the press conference interrupted us all. I finally left with an autograph of Leonardo Di Caprio, with whom I had the chance to engage in small talk while he waited for his elevator. Two hours later, Jennifer Lawrence appeared at the screening of the documentary she had produced, BREAD AND ROSES, about the condition of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul. She was wearing a red Dior dress with flip-flops, deliberately going against the dress code of the Festival (which officially mandates heeled shoes for female guests, to yearly controversy).

The sun was back on this Sunday afternoon… Not a cloud on the horizon, the sky was clear and blue. As I quickly came to the conclusion that you could absolutely not mess with the strict Cannes Festival dress code if you did not want to get kicked out from screenings, I was finally wearing an elegant white dress. Everyone around me seemed to be out of an overcrowded high-end fashion show as well, wearing brands like Chanel, Dior or Yves-Saint-Laurent. On La Croisette, Jaguar and Lamborghini drivers would regularly make noise in front of Louis Vuitton or the Hotel Martinez. Kids and their parents got ice cream all day long to fight the heat. At the entrance of the Palais des Festivals, where most screenings were happening, a dozen well heeled people peacefully walked around for hours in the sun holding huge signs with messages like: “Looking for a ticket to participate in the closing ceremony on Saturday, 27th.” “Give me your Scorsese ticket in exchange of my Tarantino ticket. Please!!!!” On the beach, mostly privatised by luxury hotels such as Le Majestic or JW Marriott, the music was loud, people were eating at fancy restaurants as well as swimming in the most peaceful azure water with a view on their yachts. The sea, the palm trees, the cinema, the American professionals, the huge photos of icons like Alain Delon or Romy Schneider on every street corner as well as the wealth, were evoking the brashness of Hollywood and Beverly Hills in spite of the geographical distance.

Press conference for The Idol by Sam Levinson. From left to right: Didier Allouch (journalist), Jane Adams (actress), Lily-Rose Depp, Sam Levinson (director), The Weeknd, Da'Vine Joie Randolph (actress), Hank Azaria (actor).
Press conference for ‘The Idol’ by Sam Levinson. From left to right: Didier Allouch (journalist), Jane Adams (actress), Lily-Rose Depp, Sam Levinson (director), The Weeknd, Da’Vine Joie Randolph (actress), Hank Azaria (actor).

Writing this letter one week later on my way back home, I am reflecting upon my experience at the festival. Thanks to the quality of the movies I saw, the passion of the people I met as well as the overall positive, cosmopolitan and festive atmosphere, it actually ended up as an experience way above my expectations. In the past warm and sunny week, I also had the opportunity to take part in a press conference with the glowing Lily-Rose Depp who thanked Cannes in French “for the merveilleux accueil” as she speaks French fluently. Her French mother Vanessa Paradis, a French singer-actress-model well-known in France, taught Lily-Rose French as a kid. Secondly, I walked the red carpet for the new film of my favorite filmmaker ever: PERFECT DAYS by Wim Wenders. On top of these incredible experiences, I even took part in “a conversation with” the brilliant Jane Fonda, who is fluent in French thanks to her former marriage to French filmmaker Roger Vadim, during which she lived in France for several years. Fonda shared some of her French with the audience: “Listen, if I really cared about a career, I would never have done what I did, which is I left America and moved to France and lived in an attic dans Le Marais! A cette époque, ce n’était pas un endroit très réputé [at that time, it was not a very reputable place]!”

Last but not least, knowing now that the Palme d’Or went to the French female filmmaker Justine Triet for ANATOMY OF A FALL as the third woman ever winning it in the History of the Festival after Jane Campion in 1993 with THE PIANO and Julia Ducournau in 2021 with TITANE, I am so glad to observe the increasing valorization of films made by women over the past few years in film and TV.

Jade Pohren is a French woman living in Paris. She has been working in the film industry for the past 7 years, mostly in documentary. Jade studied film for one year at Colorado College in the United States. She is passionate about cinema and photography.

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