If you’re anything like me — that is, a millennial who feverishly clicks through photo galleries of celebrities on Just Jared or Daily Mail — you’re probably somewhat familiar with the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
Unlike in Hollywood, where stars simply pose in front of a step-and-repeat, the red carpet at the festival in the south of France is très dramatique: Black tie is required, celebrities don’t stop for interviews (photos only) and a climb up a large staircase is required — perfect for draping the long train of a gown, à la the Met Gala.
In other words, it lends itself to fabulous posing and glamorous couture, contributing to the mystique that has lured festivalgoers here for the last 72 years.
But what I didn’t entirely realize before attending Cannes was just how much gravitas the event carries within France itself. On Tuesday, when the festival kicked off with Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” the 45-minute opening ceremony was simultaneously broadcast to 700 theaters countrywide, followed by a screening of the film. (Jarmusch’s movie launched in France on May 14 but won’t be released by Focus Features in the U.S. for a month.)
Accordingly, there’s a lot of pomp-and-circumstance involved in the opening-night ceremony. An emcee announces each guest who walks down the carpet, and the livestream from outside is broadcast to those guests inside the Palais des Festivals who have already taken their seats.
The entire arrival process is intricately timed: First come those you recognize but whose presence you are confused by, such as Eva Longoria, who apparently is at Cannes because L’Oreal is a sponsor of the festival and she is a face of L’Oreal. The next tier includes those who are not in the opening-night film but have some tie to a festival event, such as Julianne Moore, who is here to support the HIV/AIDS documentary “5B.”
Then a slew of black cars chauffeuring the festival jury pull up, this year carrying the likes of jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu, director Yorgos Lanthimos and actress Elle Fanning, who at 21 is the youngest person ever to participate on the Cannes jury.
Finally, it is time for the cast of the first night’s film to walk the carpet — on Tuesday, that included Jarmusch and such stars as Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez and Tilda Swinton. After the cast greets festival director Thierry Frémaux at the top of the staircase — there’s a lot of air kissing involved — they walk into the theater, where the entire crowd rises to their feet just to welcome the director and his actors.
So then everyone takes their seats and the movie begins, right? No. Instead, a French actor named Édouard Baer who has 177,000 followers on Twitter emerges to become the master of ceremonies. Because Cannes is in France, he speaks in French, so foreigners have the option of grabbing a headset for language translation.
Even so, his monologue — accompanied by a very moody accordion player — was, uh, philosophical in nature. After making a nod to the late director Agnès Varda, he raised the question of how important was the audience to a filmmaker.
“In America, they deal in dollars — it’s impersonal,” he said of the theater-going experience. “But in France, we’re more sentimental. We count the people.”
He continued to wax poetic about the importance of the cinema — how we live in a world in which social media invite us to create fictions about ourselves, and so in a movie theater we are just “fiction in the face of another fiction.” Cinema, he said, is “human warmth,” something far more inviting than “eating pizza and watching Netflix.”
“Don’t go home this evening,” he told the audience.
Then a Belgian singer named Angèle came out to sing “Sans Toi,” a song from Varda’s “Cléo de 5 à 7.” It was pretty and she was wearing a flowing dress.
Enter the jury! Baer called each member of the panel to the stage as if they were contestants in a beauty pageant, with each pausing center stage under a spotlight and gesturing to the crowd. The only one to speak was Iñárritu, who told the crowd that Cannes had been “very crucial” to his career since his first film, “Amores Perros,” premiered here 20 years ago.
“We are going to be doing some exciting, delicious work,” he said, gesturing toward his fellow jurors, who were seated on a couch at the side of the stage. “I feel I’m about to taste some delicious fruits.”
After a reel previewing some of the “delicious fruits” that will be shown here over the next two weeks, Baer was back and at the piano, singing a song about Jarmusch being a genius with “crazy silver hair.” Again: Inexplicable. Very French. Kind of amazing?
Then Charlotte Gainsbourg, who had a role in Iñárritu’s “21 Grams,” and Javier Bardem, who starred in the director’s “Biutiful,” emerged to officially declare the festival open.
And yet it was still not time for the film to play. First, a production crew had to come and break down the entire set — meaning the piano, a giant golden Palme d’Or, lights and furniture. This took 26 minutes, during which the crowd sat restlessly, many taking the selfies they weren’t allowed to take on the carpet.
Unfortunately for Focus Features, “The Dead Don’t Die” seemed to go over about as well as Baer’s emcee skills. There were a few laughs, but no one walked out gushing over what they’d just seen. Still, the tuxedoed masses made their way down the Croisette to the JW Marriott, where the film’s afterparty was taking place on the roof.
Because the cast had an obligation to attend an official festival dinner, none of the movie’s stars arrived at the bash until well after midnight. Not that many seemed to notice, given how many partygoers stopped to pose with the performers donning elaborate zombie makeup in the dark hallway leading to the event.
Inside, tents shielded guests from light rain, and a magician circled the room doing upclose card tricks. A 25-year-old Brit named Maximilian, the magician said he was a regular at Cannes (last year he performed at the late Paul Allen’s legendary yacht party). Then he took one of my rings and miraculously made it appear, linked on his keychain. Too bad he couldn’t work his magic earlier in the evening.