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Cannes Film Festival shakes off Covid gloom with sun, stars and a little drool

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The Cannes Film Festival chased away the pandemic gloom on Tuesday with a glittering curtain-raiser starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver – though it was not quite mouth-watering enough for some grossed-out delegates who struggled with Covid-19 saliva tests.

Forget the cocktail parties: for many people this year, the first experience of the world’s most glamorous film gathering is likely to involve spitting in a plastic tube, multiple times, to keep Covid at bay.

Cannes organisers have set themselves a mammoth (some would say reckless) task: to stage the first full-scale film festival of the coronavirus era, despite mounting worries about the delta variant that is spreading fast across Europe.

After a punishing succession of lockdowns and curfews that blighted this Riviera resort, visitors are finally rushing back to the city’s famous seaside Croisette to attend its glitzy film festival, frolic on its beaches, or both.

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As holidaymakers and movie lovers take selfies in front of the famed Palais des Festivals, it’s easy to forget this hallowed temple of world cinema was lined with hospital beds early in the pandemic, or used as a vaccination centre just weeks ago.

“The epidemic is not conquered,” Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s artistic director, warned just hours before Tuesday’s curtain-raiser. “This year, we will have to be careful – be reasonable and be very careful.”

Covid oblige, Frémaux had already said he wouldn’t be greeting female film stars on the Palais’ carpeted red steps with the customary French peck on the cheek. He has since abandoned hopes of doing without face masks on the carpet, adding: “We have a duty to be exemplary.”

On top of the mandatory masks, all festival attendees are required to be fully vaccinated (including a 15-day period since the last jab), or present a negative PCR test no older than 48 hours, to enter the Palais. In order to fast-track the process, organisers have set up a vast testing centre nearby, though some fussy delegates have found the experience uncomfortable or even gross.

Instead of undergoing the usual nasal torture, visitors are directed to individual booths and handed a plastic kit wherein they have to “salivate”. A lab worker instructs them to provide “at least a millilitre of liquid – the foam doesn’t count”.

Visitors collect their own samples at the festival's testing centre.
Visitors collect their own samples at the festival’s testing centre. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Admittedly, throats parched by the sweltering July heat can make it difficult to deliver. But the process is free, quick and painless – with results mailed and messaged in six hours instead of the usual 24.

“That’s record time for a PCR test,” says 25-year-old Alexia Tardieu, who manages the team of around 50 lab workers, most of them local medical students.

Open every day from 8am to 9pm, the centre is already performing some 300 tests per hour, says Tardieu, who expects the tempo to increase as more delegates arrive. She’s confident the festival will go ahead safely.

“Life is slowly getting back to normal, it’s a wonderful feeling,” she says. “Plus, this year’s July slot means it’s going to be sunny every day!”

Back in business

It’s been a long wait for Cannes, a sleepy city of 75,000 that normally springs to life in May with its famed film festival. Last year’s event had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, dealing a crushing blow to local businesses, while the 2021 edition has been delayed by a spring lockdown.

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“The festival always marks the start of the season for us hoteliers,” says Catherine Welter, the manager of the Hotel Cavendish. “This time the season starts two months late, but we’re delighted to have everyone back.”

Hours before the festival’s curtain-raiser, clusters of bystanders formed outside the grand hotels that line the Croisette, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone famous drifting out of the lobby and into a waiting car. Others jealously guarded their stools, folding chairs and ladders positioned at the foot of the red carpet.

Out on the restaurant terraces, Hollywood types talked shop and swapped business cards, shouting above the usual techno music. The film critics, meanwhile, were scratching their heads wondering just how they would cram the festival’s 60-plus films (without counting the Cannes sidebars) – and the time to write about them – into just 12 days.

Jury head Spike Lee bosses the red carpet on the festival's opening night.
Jury head Spike Lee bosses the red carpet on the festival’s opening night. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The return of the festival crowd is terrific news for a city that lives largely off tourism and conventions. Hotels and restaurants provide most of the local jobs, but have been shut for long periods and had to rely on government handouts throughout much of the pandemic.

“The state has been very supportive, keeping us alive when we had to shut,” says Patrice Foppiani, the owner of the Bella Storia restaurant in central Cannes. “But now we’re thrilled to be back in business. May or July, we don’t mind, as long as the festival takes place.”

Foppiani has told his team to stop wearing masks on the outdoor terrace, “because our job is also about smiles and contact”. Despite mounting concern about a possible new wave of infections by the end of the summer, he is confident Cannes will weather the storm thanks to one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

“We know this won’t be a bumper year like 2019,” Foppiani adds. “But hopefully the film festival can show the way and other big events will start coming back to Cannes.”

From beach to red carpet

Like other Cannes eateries, the Bella Storia opened only briefly last summer, catering to a largely domestic crowd as the pandemic kept foreign visitors away. A year later, continuing travel restrictions mean the free-spending foreigners are still sorely missed.

Before Covid, the festival brought in some 40,000 accredited cinema professionals and twice as many visitors. This year, Cannes is expecting a smaller crowd, with early-July holidaymakers only partially making up for the shortfall.

Balmy July evenings mean the festival's beach cinema is likely to draw large crowds this year.
Balmy July evenings mean the festival’s beach cinema is likely to draw large crowds this year. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

“At this stage, it’s anyone’s guess what business will be like,” said staff at the near-empty Plage du Festival beach club, their voices drowned in disco music. Across the Croisette, luxury stores are equally non-committal. Some have refrained from buying in the usual double stocks, opting instead to wait and see how things go.

Cannes’ 133 hotels, which generally make around 20 percent of their annual turnout during the festival, are still far from fully-booked.

“Hotels are currently 80 percent full for the first week of the festival, and a little less for the second,” says Welter, who heads the local association of hoteliers. “There’s still rooms up for grabs, whether you’re looking for a budget option of a five-star suite on the Croisette.”

While Welter concedes this will not be a normal edition of the world’s glitziest film festival, she prefers to look on the bright side of things.

“This is a unique opportunity to enjoy a different experience,” she explains. “You can tan on the beach in the day and walk the red carpet at night – it’s the best of two worlds!”


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