On the Ground at Cannes 2021, Where Spitting and Stars Reign

From the premiere of 'Annette' to the new COVID-19 measures in place, here's what the view from the French festival feels like.

Left, clockwise: Leos Carax, Farhana Bodi, Bong Joon Ho, Spike Lee. Photo-collage by Observer via Getty Images

CANNES — Is the Cannes Film Festival actually happening? Take it from Bong Joon Ho, Pedro Almodóvar, Jodie Foster and Spike Lee. They all joined the director of the Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning Parasite to officially give the go-ahead at Tuesday’s opening night ceremonies. “Abierto,” said Almodóvar. “Ouvert,” said Foster. “Yeolda,” said Bong. And Spike, in his most fluent Brooklynese, boomed: “OPENNNNNN!

As a global pandemic begins to recede amid hot spots and stubborn variants, as Japan tightens restrictions for its forthcoming Olympic games, Cannes is hosting a major international gathering with more than 28,000 registered globe-trotting attendees. And the Riviera resort town might just pull it off. Movie theaters are at full capacity, attendees are dutifully masked, and the only thing rivaling all the applause are the sighs of relief.

That, and the sound of spitting. Lots and lots of mostly Americans spitting. Because the United States doesn’t have a standardized nationwide databank of its Pfizer, Moderna and J&J recipients, France won’t recognize that flimsy CDC card with its hand-written double-jab dates. Only those vaccinated within the E.U. are allowed to skip the testing. So the French government bankrolled a free COVID-19 test center that processes saliva tests within six hours. If any Yanks want to enter Cannes’ headquarters, the sprawling convention center known as the Palais des Festivals, they need to show a QR code that hyperlinks to negative test results from within the past 48 hours.

The festival experience is now completely paperless and everyone is permanently tethered to their smartphones.

QR codes rule this year. E-tickets, E-Covid tests, E-everything. The festival experience is now completely paperless and everyone is permanently tethered to their smartphones. Cannes’ badge-holder admission lines, usually serpentine behemoths that traditionally form up to two hours before each screening, are pre-pandemic history. In its place is a streamlined process of guaranteed seating that must be booked online. Now festgoers breeze into theaters with very little waiting or worry.

It’s been surprisingly stress-free, except for the first few days, when the ticking website routinely crashed due to overwhelming demand. Starting at 7 am, when fresh blocks of tickets were released, the entire town was hitting refresh and reload on their respective browsers, and continued doing it until night fell. Thanks to the diligence of unseen Gallic IT staffers, the whole operation seems—we stress seems—to be running smoothly at last.

The Opening Night film was Amazon Studios’ Annette, an eccentric musical scored by the intrepid alt-rock band Sparks (who are having a moment with Edgar Wright’s just-released The Sparks Brothers documentary celebrating the sibling duo’s five decades). Amazon bankrolled French director Leos Carax’s feverish vision, a dark fairy tale starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a married couple whose volcanic passions result in jealousy, tragedy, spasms of violence and the birth of a marionette baby. The critical reaction has been kaleidoscopic, although industry trade Screen International’s poll of critics has the competition film currently leading the race for the Palme d’Or.

“So…may we start?” asks Carax himself in the opening minutes of the film, prompting Sparks to turn his words into a recitativo prologue where all the cast members pour out of an L.A. recording studio into the street and march down the sidewalk chanting the song. It’s a bravura single-take fourth-wall-breaking Steadicam shot that feels absolutely electric. And it sets a tone for the rest of the wildly expressionistic film, which vacillates between fantasy and film noir, naturalism and pure myth. All set to music, of course, with Cotillard and Driver mostly doing their own singing.

“I wish I could speak French like Jodie Foster.” –Spike Lee

Cotillard, as Ann Defrasnoux, a sensitive opera singer with an overwhelming sense of doom, plays her role elegantly. But it’s Driver who fully commits as Henry McHenry, a rageaholic standup comic who berates his audience with pugilistic intensity, wearing a bathrobe and boxer-briefs and swinging his microphone like a lasso—or a noose, since he wraps it around his neck and feigns choking to death. Funny? Not so much. His show, “Ape of God,” is more performance-art meta than rib-tickling hilarity, and Carax uses Sparks’ music to turn it into a call-and-response between the tortured artist and his devoted audience.

Ann and Henry’s romance fires up the tabloids, which call them “Beauty and the Bastard” while scrutinizing their improbable attraction. “We love each other so much,” they sing repeatedly, in an extended and very naked sex scene that has Driver’s face nestled in Cotillard’s crotch, belting out lines in between pussy licks.

Pregnancy follows, along with the birth of their daughter Annette—who is a wooden doll. It’s Carax’s boldest choice, and the puppeteering is magical when it’s not deeply creepy. Henry, eager to push boundaries in his show, simulates tickling his wife to death, which makes his audience turn on him and causes career suicide. And that leads to drinking, festering resentment towards Ann, bad choices on a storm-beaten yacht, and the eventual exploitation of Annette’s innate and ethereal talents.

Will this tale of an angry white man and the women he abuses appeal to the Cannes jury, headed by Lee and a female-majority group that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal? Time will tell. But it was a fittingly gonzo kick-off to a woozy opening night ceremony night that also included Almodóvar awarding Foster an honorary Palme d’Or. “It’s good to get out!” said Foster in impeccably fluent French, a language she learned at an early age.

“I wish I could speak French like Jodie Foster,” said Lee, decked out in a double-breasted hot pink suit, matching rose-tinted glasses, and red-white-and-blue Air Jordans. He went on to joke with the black-tie crowd about going to Paris and walking the Champs-Elysées. “The Chomps-Aleezes,” he said. “You know where that is? You know? You don’t know.”

No matter. Foster said it best anyway, when she encapsulated Cannes’ improbable reawakening. “Le cinéma continue toujours.”

The 74th Annual Cannes Film Festival runs July 6–July 17, 2021. On the Ground at Cannes 2021, Where Spitting and Stars Reign