May 20 2014 06:25 PM

Frenetic energy, favoritism and friends mark the international event

2014 Cannes Film Festival
Waiting in line for a screening
Photo by Glenn Heath Jr.

The Cannes Film Festival looks a like a hurricane of frenetic energy from afar, but on the ground, it can only be described as controlled anarchy. Film professionals (media, production, exhibition) from around the world descend on this seaside town for 11 days of madness, clogging the streets and charming cafés around the iconic Palais theater complex like a swarm of locusts. Local folk head for the hills, renting out their posh apartments to out-of-towners at unspeakable monetary rates.

But this is the festival's façade. For me, Cannes is an annual opportunity to clear my head, catch up with old friends and meet new ones. I also attend for multiple professional reasons, writing film pieces for publications and scouting what's the latest on the Latino-film front. 

This is my fourth year attending the iconic festival that stretches along the balmy Croisette on the French Riviera, and each experience has been strangely unique. The first day of any Cannes Film Festival is always the hardest, especially for anyone flying in from west of the Mississippi River. This year was no different. After traveling for nearly 24 hours, delirium sets in almost immediately, leaving you in a strange mental fog.

To make matters more complicated, everyone attending the event must fly into neighboring Nice and then fight for one of the few seats on a press shuttle bus bound for Cannes. Once in town, you find yourself immersed in a labyrinth of interlocking streets bisected by racing traffic lanes. Small cafés, bakeries and restaurants percolate with activity, only outdone by the incessant cries of seagulls flocking in from the Mediterranean. Cannes may be quite peaceful when not engulfed in the chaos of festival fever, but I'd never know. 

It takes a few days to get used to the surreal bubble that is Cannes. Your body must adjust to the rigorous screening schedule, the long wait times standing in line and the singular hierarchy system that informs it all. Press outlets receive their badges based on clout, meaning that we're segregated by level of importance. This means each group gets to watch those who are "worthier" be admitted into the movie first. It's a masochistic system that only the French could have perfected. 

The venues themselves are a marvel. The Grand Lumiere Theatre can hold more than 2,000 patrons, and it's packed each morning for the daily press screening. When the screenings begin and the lights dim, one can hear a symphony of coughs that never stops. After a while, these annoying noises drift into the background, going unnoticed in favor of whatever film is being presented. The Debussy Theatre, which screens the Un Certain Regard sidebar films, is slightly smaller but no less majestic. They are my home for the duration. 

The real challenge for the committed film critic is finding enough time to do your job and remain healthy. Staying fed and hydrated might seem like an obvious priority, but amid the adrenaline-pumping sprints that are sometimes necessary between screenings, it's easy to forget to graze. 

That's why you have to lean on your friends. Saving seats, grabbing a snack, discussing the latest controversial film: These are the realities of Cannes that are far more joyous when you've got a legion of compatriots with whom to experience them. I still remember waiting out in the rain for two hours during the 2012 festival to see the premiere of Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love. It was only tolerable thanks to the great conversations. 

This year's edition of Cannes is already into its fifth day, and I'm just getting used to it. That's the great irony of this place: The second it starts to feel normal, you have to pack up and go back home to reality. I already can't wait for next year. 

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