Founded in 1946, the Cannes Film Festival is the world’s most prestigious movie gathering, showcasing the cream of international cinema for discerning and sometimes cranky elites. But it's not just the films that are special iconic — many of the locations have taken on their own importance too. With elegant personalities, high-end auteurs and a massive rights bazaar known as “the market,” Cannes during the festival — this year’s edition began May 14 — is a feverish, colorful place.
THE YACHT SCENE
Nearly all first-time festgoers find themselves with an item on their checklists: Get aboard a yacht for a signature Mediterranean party. They’ll usually find it — the events, at once intimate and splashy, are held regularly throughout the festival, usually thrown by a small financier or entity that doesn’t want to splurge for the full-on beach restaurant party or who just, you know, happens to have a yacht they want to show off. A careful etiquette applies: Shoes are checked in on the dock, ice-skating-style, so no damage is done to the vessel, and drink spillage is a capital offense. Most of these yachts are docked at the Old Harbor just west of the Palais, but if you’re really lucky — or simply good friends with Paul Allen — you’ll be invited to a yacht that’s docked offshore, which usually means riding in a small motorboat ferry out to the party. It’s a fun excursion, but don’t wear any loose headgear: Some of the locals piloting these boats seem to be in training for the Monaco Grand Prix.
Sitting on a main square of restaurants and just a few hundred yards from the Palais, this is a famous haunt for the festival’s film critics, particularly the Americans. Roger Ebert famously stayed there, and so do many of the reviewers you most like reading. So if you’re a filmmaker who doesn’t like the review you’ve received, just pick up tomatoes at the market down the street and, well, you know....
THE PALAIS DES FESTIVALS
Nothing says Cannes like “The Palais,” a deceptively modern structure seemingly dropped from the sky alongside an array of older buildings and docked yachts at the western end of the town’s main Boulevard de Croisette. The Palais houses several highly elegant theaters — including the flagship Lumière — as well as a labyrinth of hallways and rooms that are used for events, news conferences and the market. It is in this compound that classics such as “Pulp Fiction,” “The Tree of Life” and “Apocalypse Now” were shown for the first time, where Lars von Trier made his infamous Nazi crack at a news conference and where numerous other seismic events happened. Cannes isn’t Cannes without the Palais.
Along the sea, stretching from just behind the Palais several blocks east, are the pavilions, a collection of internationally themed tents, often with beach access, that exhibit and tout various countries. Want to meet a Dubai sheik with a killer movie idea? Interested in learning of the many new filming opportunities in Croatia? Curious about that new sound stage on the outskirts of Tokyo? Just stroll through the pavilions, where you’ll get a United Nations-level mix of culture and hard sell.
There are more glamorous hotels on the Croisette, but no other spot serves as essential a business purpose as the massive expanse of lawn outside the Grand. A hodgepodge of garden furniture and inflatable white couches — and with plenty of bottles of rosé sitting in front of them — the Grand lawn is a place where all day and well into the night agents, producers and executives gather to schmooze and make deals. If you want to schedule a meeting, that’s the place to do it. Even better, if you want to buttonhole someone who’s avoiding you, just come by at 11 p.m. or midnight and wander amid the clusters of people. You’ll find them soon enough.
LE PETIT MAJESTIC
Situated a block north of the Grand, this innocuous-looking corner pub with unassuming diner-esque furniture and a modestly stocked bar becomes a hotbed after-hours, particularly for the festival’s younger set. Aspiring actresses, slick agents and student filmmakers all gather over its infamous plastic cups of beer and wine, spilling out into the streets as if in a youth-themed, film-centric street party. No one ever plans on going here, and yet everyone always ends up here.
The grandest of the Cannes hotels, this elegant domed structure has seen and heard it all. The biggest stars stay here, Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier here, and Alfred Hitchcock set “To Catch a Thief” here. Suites and the patio restaurant are dotted with the rich and famous dining or giving interviews, and the lobby is filled with celebrities (and, OK, the occasional call girl). Its broad facade that takes up nearly a city block also makes it a great spot for studios and financiers to mount giant billboards. The hotel earned a less savory distinction last year, though, when a major jewel heist that led to $130 million in stolen gems went down at the hotel. Lock up those family heirlooms.
(pronounced the non-Latin way, mar-tin-EZ; this is France). The last of the string of plush hotels that line the Croisette and another popular spot for the celebrities and the people who stalk them. The famous are whisked in and out all day, and sometimes the not-so-famous too — it was here last year that the notorious Psy impersonator was spotted in sunglassy splendor, waving to the stalkarazzi as he left. Sometimes the hotel makes the man — the camera-phone crowds waiting outside the barriers snapped pictures of him and believed he was the real “Gangnam Style”-singing deal. But it wasn’t always ground zero for glamour: During World War II, the hotel was alternately occupied by the French, Italian and German armies.
THE BOULEVARD DE CROISETTE
At all but the most wee hours of the morning — and sometimes even then — there’s noisiness and business on this tree-lined, waterside street, particularly the three-quarters of a mile or so on which the main hotels and dockside restaurants are located. Much of the activity isn’t festival-related per se — see the tourists and families strolling as they take in street performers or stop for a crepe. But much of the activity is intermingled with it — agents rushing in and out of hotels on their way to meetings, noisy film afterparties at a series of beachside restaurants, and, during the evening premiere hours on the few blocks outside the Palais, a red-carpet frenzy of fans, cops and gawking passersby. The Croisette is a circus combined with a zoo mixed with a street fair, and the festival wouldn’t have it any other way.way.
Sometimes it’s good to remember that life goes on outside the festival. This cobblestone pedestrian drag running parallel to the Croisette is the closest thing to that reminder. Filled with shoppers at all times, it offers plenty of retail options — especially if you’re hunting for a 500-euro dress shirt. There are also worthy restaurants and even a useful retail spot or two, such as a cellphone store. For those, you know, outside-the-festival calls.
GRANDMOTHER'S WHEELBARROW, LA PIZZA AND THEIR ILK
On the surface there’s nothing special about these restaurants and others, which are local-run affairs with crowded tables and simple, hearty cuisine. But all around town stretching for blocks north of the Croisette, including through the winding old-town streets of Le Suquet, are tucked-in restaurants like these. For much of the year they’re relatively quiet eateries where vacationers and locals can enjoy a leisurely meal. During the festival they become places where a business relationship is sealed or a filmmaker is celebrated. Just don’t make plans for immediately after dinner. “Rushing” through a meal in anything less than three hours is considered, you might say, gauche.