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Cannes Diary Day One – And She Was

Life is about doing things right and doing things wrong. The things we get wrong become as big a part of our personal history as the things we get right. I was smart enough to upgrade my seat to one with more legroom, and closer to the front but not smart enough to realize that checking two bags would cost an extra $100. The idea is to pack one big suitcase and bring a carry-on. But I knew I’d be schlepping from the shuttle drop-off to my rented flat. Draggin a giant suitcase up those medieval hills imprinted a distasteful polaroid of myself — sweat dripping down my face, French people laughing at me. So I went with two smaller ones. Was $100 worth sparing my dignity? Maybe.

My flat is maintained by a very lovely French woman with two parrots. It is a one room affair with a small stove and fold-out bed. No chirping gulls or pigeons fluttering about, no Ratatouille rooftops to gaze upon. But quiet, clean, safe and in Le Suquet. I rolled my two bags up the hills and down to find my flat, which is nestled between a hair salon and a one of those stores where paunchy middle aged men with dark circles under their eyes smoke and talk and watch the world go by, eying it with suspicion.

Americans tend to stand out unless they’re good at blending in. Most of us aren’t, let’s face it. We’re used to having things easy. We’re used to complaining and yelling to get what we want. French people will have none of that. Politeness rules the day, except for the random male who likes to shout things at women. That never changes, no matter where you go.

Shoes are always the big thing here. You have to have the right shoes. It isn’t easy finding shoes that look good and can get you around without hurting too much. I’ve yet to find the right balance. Inevitably I end up looking like Peppermint Patty with funky cankle-exposing sandals. Or else I suffer silently in a pair of boots (too hot). Really I should shuck it all and make the leap to wearing running shoes. It becomes a matter of how visibly terrible a person wants to look in France, a place where women mostly dress up.  Like it or not, style matters here.

The first leg of my flight was made better by being seated next to Deadline’s Anthony D’ Alessandro. By now, the brain fog has set in and I am not sure what we even spoke about but I know I spent much of that time laughing, probably too loudly. We didn’t sleep much, a scenario I knew would have consequences later.

One of the toughest things you have to do here is push your way onto the shuttle — that is, if you don’t have a car service picking you up which, I discovered, many American journalists do.  You have to “push in” rudely because there is no line, particularly.  I sat next to a young woman with a worried expression on her face. It took her about twenty minutes to speak to me. She asked about my cell phone – I’d rented a Cellhire phone for the duration. She asked if she could use it to call a cab when we got to the beach. She was an intern coming to Cannes for the first time a day after she was supposed to have arrived. Her plane had been forced to turn around mid flight and head back because of engine trouble. She spent the night in some hotel and finally got a flight out the next day.  She had no idea where to go in Cannes. Something about her reminded me of my daughter Emma who is about to turn 17. She seemed like an adult but just barely.

After we were dropped off at the shuttle stop I fretted with her for a few minutes over finding a taxi — never around when you need one. I like to think everything worked out for her after I saw her wave goodbye crossing the street. All of her experiences are ahead of her. These experiences will shape who she’ll become — whether they will color her bitter, hopeful, wise, or angry.  It’s no wonder so many men like younger women before they get there.

Once inside my flat, I removed every piece of clothing I had on, took a shower and went to sleep. I knew Jeff Wells and other movie journalists were gathering at La Pizza but Jeff gets to Paris a few days early then takes a train to Cannes so that he’s physically ready to hit the ground running.   There was no way I was putting on any more clothes — and god forbid, shoes — and heading back outside.  I also knew I would be wide awake at 3am and sure enough I was. It was then that I realized I’d forgotten my French adapter. That meant no computer until I secured one. I did that wrong.

I boiled some water and poured it through some Starbucks coffee brought from home (I did that right), along with the portable plastic filter (ditto). I picked up my credential then headed down Rue d’Antibes to find Dinky’s, the popular electronics store in town.  I was sure they’d have at least a universal adapter. “Get there soon,” my friend Craig (who didn’t come with me this time) emailed. “They’ll be gone once more people arrive.” None of the shops open until 10am and by the time I got to Dinky’s it was only 9. Another woman, middle eastern, waited silently with me a full hour for the doors to open at last.

With my adapter in hand I set about finding some food to stock my kitchen with. I picked up some raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, onions, French thyme, fleur de sel, some champagne vinegar and a baguette. They don’t mess around in France where food is concerned, especially Farmer’s Market fare. It is plump, fresh, and fills your mouth with flavor. Living in America you almost forget what food really tastes like since we process so much of it and eat what is really pretend food.

I could put off work no longer. I wasn’t here on vacation after all. I knew that the opening film had already screened but I hadn’t read any reviews about it. I would try for two – Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall and Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales. Standing Tall represents the 2nd time in Cannes history that the festival opened with a film directed by a woman. The first time was 28 years ago, with Diane Kurys, director of a rarely seen film called A Man in Love, which was one of my favorites as a young woman. But Standing Tall was a disappointment.  Tale of Tales made the trip worth it.  That’s Cannes — you see a wide spectrum of films, some you expect, others you don’t, stories that are unlike any you’ll see in the United States unless you seek them out.

The shopping roads, which had been packed hours before, were empty when I left the Palais to head back up the hill to the Suquet. Doors closed again at only 9pm. They open at 10, they close before 9. That tells you all you need to know about what French people value.  The only thing open are restaurants and the overpriced souvenir shops down by the water.  No sit down dinner for me — it was home again for another night of fitful jetlag sleep.

It’s easy to feel a little lost when everything you love you’ve left behind.  My own short history of being here has given me the chance to rent a car and pretend to be a French commuter, wear a yellow, then blue and now pink badge as though I were a real journalist. I remember once taking off a body strangling pair of spanx while seated between two Frenchman during a screening because I couldn’t breathe. I see the magic of movies, the glamor of movie stars, started by Hollywood then preserved and curated by the French.

You hear people talk about the lineup being not that exciting. Certainly a three-hour graphic lesbian sex movie was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen shake up Cannes. The lineup isn’t really the point. You can see these movies anytime. What matters more is that it represents one of the last remaining institutions that remembers the art of film. It is more necessary today than it’s ever been.

So much changes and then nothing does. The yachts still bob indifferently in the sea, tied to the docks next to the Palais.   The rain still decides if it wants to come or not.  Dogs still populate the sidewalks with their owners.  Beautiful women’s faces and bodies still plaster every available space — a different kind of good life being advertised.  Tables are still set up on sidewalks.  You still can’t use their restrooms. Patrons still eat buckets of mussels, drink light pink wine, smoke pack after pack of murderous cigarettes.  It isn’t until you see a movie like the Garrone that you really feel like you’re here for the right reasons.  There is nothing like the power of transformative cinema. There is nothing like taste of a hot buttery croissant first thing in the morning. There is nothing like the perfect simplicity of a warm sunny day near the Mediterranean.  There is nothing like Cannes.