Cannes journal, part 1: welcome to the aquarium

A little silly, very fancy, fully indecipherable

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The official theme song of the Cannes Film Festival is "The Aquarium" from Camille Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals. It's a piece that's somehow become the go-to "magic of cinema" theme, due to its frequent use in "magic of cinema" montages in awards show telecasts and other settings in which the art of filmmaking needs to be defended or justified. Saint-Saëns' tinkling, undulating piano line, originally written to capture the flickering of underwater light, has now been repurposed to capture the flickering of light through a film projector.

It's a theme that, for a moment, can make you forget mainstream cinema's crippling franchise addiction, the crass tabloid dissection of the lives of actors, the focus groups and studio notes that try at every turn to revive the elusive myth of the auteur. It can make you believe in the sublime art of storytelling through light and sound, the god-like ability and extremely human desire to share the experiences of life on earth.

I first hear this theme as I'm standing outside in the sweltering late afternoon sun, waiting to pick up my press badge. The Croisette is in full crush mode for the red carpet arrivals for the festival's opening ceremony, which is taking place about 50 feet away. Tourists pose for pictures in front of vacant step-and-repeat banners, girls in cheap department store prom dresses stand along the sidewalk holding tattered signs begging for screening "invitations" — "1 Invitation SVP Merci" they all read, without fail. Stocky paparazzi, wearing the same cargo-shorts-black-logo-tee uniform they wear on the scummiest corners of Hollywood Boulevard, lug their gear down the sidewalk in search of that perfect shot to sell to an Italian tabloid.

Then "The Aquarium" fades away and is followed by the thump of Die Antwoord's "I Fink You Freaky."

Welcome to Cannes, the most glamorous film festival in the world. Film festivals in general enjoy a kind of unspoiled aura of excitement and importance to people who have never been to one, despite the fact that most of them primarily consist of long lines and dark rooms. But in the popular American imagination at least, Cannes in particular has remained in a kind of rarefied continental bubble, a place where the integrity of a director's vision (always a director, Cannes subscribes to the controversial "by" when crediting directors in its lineup schedule) cannot only remain intact, but can be lauded with a level of pomp usually reserved for royalty or Beyoncé. Depending on your point of view, that's either antiquated and precious, or a rare kind of paradise.

But it’s not immune to the more craven aspects of celebrity and spectacle, and while the voracity of the European tabloid industry is well documented, for some reason the wire photos that make it back to the blogs from the Croisette every May always seem to leave the throngs of gawking fans out of the frame.

Unlike American festivals, there is no populist attitude baked into the official festival. Screenings are open only to those carrying a spectrum of different colored, specifically coded badges, and even press like myself have to jump through all kinds of Kafkaesque hoops to finagle an "invitation" for the higher-profile screenings. (God forbid anyone refer to the printed card with a tear-off stub at the end of this search as a "ticket" — that would imply that it was something just any commoner could acquire with a fistful of euros, rather than a privilege for a certain echelon of society.)

This carefully cultivated air of exclusivity, now 68 years in the making, only fuels the intensity of the mob outside, who have to content themselves with the generalized, watered-down theme of "movies!" that fills the cheap souvenir kiosks the further you wander from the Palais. In the lawn by the theater you can buy €3 Italian ices and pose behind a cutout of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Nothing like that would ever fly at Sundance, which proudly opens its doors to local Utah residents every year. Yet somehow, Cannes is the only film festival I've been to with a full body check at the door of every screening.

(Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images)

My first invitation, and my first screening of my first Cannes film festival, is for Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone's (Gomorrah) surreal fairytale starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, and John C. Reilly. From my balcony seat way up in the rafters of the stadium-like Grand Lumière theater, I have to look down at the screen as the Saint-Saëns starts again, and an animation of a floating red carpet staircase ascends to the starry heavens. There is nothing cool, funky, or irreverent about this opening animation, which runs before every screening at the festival. We are here to watch movies, because movies are humanity's most glamorous and noble pursuit.

Tale of Tales is pretty glamorous, if not exactly noble. At one point Vincent Cassel stumbles through a grotto full of naked women and kicks a peacock into a fountain. The magic of movies! I had been curious about what tone Garrone would take: if it would be one long tongue-in-cheek goof, or if the lavish set pieces, many of which look like they were pulled straight from a Vogue Italia editorial spread, would read as heavy-handed and disconnected from reality. In the end it's neither: fully aware of its ridiculousness and embracing it without much in the way of apology. In that way, it was the perfect first Cannes screening. It's certainly the best film I've ever seen in which Salma Hayek eats the heart of a sea monster.

A very old-school, very French way of Doing Movies

This morning, I saw an equally strange, equally admirable film, The Lobster, a dryer-than-dry future dystopia farce that takes place in a world where it is a crime to be single. Both of these films starred well-known talent (Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in this case, along with Reilly — again! Dude's having an interesting year, for sure) and are clearly not shoestring budget affairs, but they manage to feel like pretty unfettered dispatches from the wild and weird brains of their creators.

In a way, Cannes seems like welcome counter-programming to the festivals I've attended earlier this year. Unlike Sundance and South by Southwest, there is no exhibition of the latest experiments in VR filmmaking here, no newfangled streaming platforms making their big debut. The parties are sponsored by Perrier-Jouet, not Hulu. Netflix suits are heckled here as badly as a Von Trier film. Everyone seems to be content to dig their Louboutin heels into the sand in defense of a very old-school, very French way of doing movies. The fact that the festival has a reputation for having the highest-quality program in the world is probably not coincidental.

On Thursday night though, after a day of writing, I couldn't help but drag myself to a DJ party on the beach sponsored by Magnum Ice Cream, where the still formal-dressed guests of that evening's screenings gathered to kick off their aforementioned heels and dance awkwardly to wedding-grade '80s dance hits, lubricated by free-flowing, top-shelf champagne and a custom ice cream bar station. Hashtag-branded banners hung behind the stage, and in between tracks, everyone stopped and took out their phones to check their messages. Brand ambassadors dressed in pink wandered around bumming smokes from guests as everyone put their hands up and sang along to "Empire State of Mind." It was a little silly, it was very fancy, it was fully indecipherable. So far, so Cannes.

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