A blazing hot beach day in the South of France was interrupted by a flock of men dressed in penguin-black tuxedos and women in shimmering ballgowns. They marched past bikini-clad locals to mark the return of the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday afternoon. The 75th edition of the world’s most glamorous gathering of movies brought Hollywood back to the French Riviera in the middle of May, even as COVID-19 cases have been lurking upward in regions all over the world.
Cannes has always been about upholding traditions, but this year, the festival loosened the metaphorical bowtie around its neck by partnering with digital-native sponsors Brut and TikTok, and unveiling a hip French zombie movie, “Final Cut” directed by Michel Hazanavicius, on opening night.
This year’s Cannes is also the biggest film event to be hosted since the start of the pandemic, bringing together the festival and market crowds. (The festival was canceled in 2020; it was pushed back to July last summer to deal with COVID-19 concerns.) The red carpet, which looked nearly mask-free as if COVID-19 was a distant memory, was flooded with French stars and industry figures, including “Final Cut” actors Romain Duris and Bérénice Bejo, as well as jury president Vincent Lindon — a veteran French actor who recently starred in Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning “Titane.” Adding to the crowd were other jurors, including Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero”), Joachim Trier (“The Worst Person in the World”), British actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall (“Passing”), American director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”) and Swedish actor Noomi Rapace (“Lamb”). Rounding out the A-list set was Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Eva Longoria and “No Time to Die” star Lashana Lynch.
But the big star turn was reserved for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who appeared via video to serve as a potent reminder of the war in his country.
“I’m sure that the dictator will lose,” Zelenskyy said, in a pointed reference to Vladimir Putin.
“We will win in this war,” he added. “Glory to Ukraine.”
Inside the Palais, few patrons wore a mask in the humid theater or lobby — with an exception of a smattering (but not all) of the ushers. Making matters worse, as far as germs go, the water pressure inside the bathrooms was so low about 20 minutes before the ceremony began, it was hard for patrons to properly wash their hands.
It’s been a running theme at Cannes so far that the maskless have far outnumbered the masked, from local eateries to the press room, where the Cannes jury held court earlier in the afternoon to a room of journalists who breathed air freely. Festival officials note that the laissez-faire approach to safety precautions are in line with those of France, where cases are declining. However, the festival is also starting as COVID cases are surging in cities like New York City and Los Angeles, where a significant number of attendees are based.
Despite Cannes embracing TikTok, the festival still adhered to its strict no-selfie rule on the red carpet. If someone tried to snap a shot quickly, an aggressive usher would swat his or her hand over the lens of their iPhone.
Cannes handed out its honorary Palme d’Or to Forest Whitaker, who was feted with a tribute during the opening ceremony. Whitaker previously won the best actor award at Cannes for his performance in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird.”
“It’s a great honor to be with you today as we gather to celebrate the power of artists,” Whitaker said, calling them “the world’s torch bearers, who tell the story of mankind.”
Addressing the pandemic, audience members nodded with emotion as the actor noted that “all of our lives have been changed through isolation.”
“For years, we’ll be processing the trauma of what happened to us,” Whitaker said. “To make sense of it all through the magic of dreams and imagination.”
The ceremony’s emcee, “Benedetta” actor Virginie Efira, also made a nod to the tumultuous political context in which this year’s gathering is being held in her speech. Dressed in a glittering gown, Efira spoke about the power of movies to open people’s minds in dark times.
This year’s Official Selection spans a wide gamut and includes several hotly anticipated titles, including David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future Past,” Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and James Gray’s “Armageddon Time.”