Cannes, from A to Z

Tears, tantrums, ticket touts, topless starlets... It takes a strong constitution to survive the annual film festival on the Riviera, which starts today. John Walsh has the ultimate visitors' guide
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The Independent Culture

A is for American Films, and the bad blood that's existed for years between the festival panjandrums and the big Hollywood studios. It's pure cultural snobbery. The festival's directors frown on blockbusters, while Palme d'Or jurors favour quieter, art-house projects. Last year, only one Hollywood movie (Vincent Gallo's unspeakable The Brown Bunny) competed. Protests raged that the few American-related films were mostly anti-American. This year, all is sweetness and light. "We have established a relationship of confidence," preens new festival director Thierry Frémaux, and there are 12 US films in the Official Selection, including Troy, Bad Santa and Dawn of the Dead. See Q for the reason for this rapprochement.

A is for American Films, and the bad blood that's existed for years between the festival panjandrums and the big Hollywood studios. It's pure cultural snobbery. The festival's directors frown on blockbusters, while Palme d'Or jurors favour quieter, art-house projects. Last year, only one Hollywood movie (Vincent Gallo's unspeakable The Brown Bunny) competed. Protests raged that the few American-related films were mostly anti-American. This year, all is sweetness and light. "We have established a relationship of confidence," preens new festival director Thierry Frémaux, and there are 12 US films in the Official Selection, including Troy, Bad Santa and Dawn of the Dead. See Q for the reason for this rapprochement.

B is for Beach, where the best parties are, where you sip your Planter's Punch, nibble your Caribbean-themed jerky drumstick and gawp at the 80ft cabin cruisers moored in the Bai de Cannes. B is also for Cannes favourite Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, which opens proceedings at lunchtime today. And for the British film industry, whose presence is practically zero this year. Only The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is in the programme - this quintessentially English biopic stars an Australian, is directed by a Jamaican and is co-funded by the American HBO network.

C is for the Croisette, the seemingly endless main drag that runs along the margin between the beach and the fancy hotels and restaurants. People wander up and down it all day long, like slaves in Dante's Inferno, doomed to march the same treadmill for all eternity...

D is for De-lovely, the festival closer, a charmer about Cole Porter by Irwin Winkler, starring Kevin Klein.

E is for Eurotrash, who are to be seen everywhere except at the movies. Big hair, trashy jewellery, appalling fashion sense - and that's just the men.

F is for Fahrenheit 9/11, Ray Bradbury's book-burning dystopia updated as political polemic (see M for Michael Moore). And for Thierry Frémaux, the festival's all-embracing new boss. And French movies (only three in competition).

G is for Gillo Pontecorvo, who will introduce a new version of his The Battle of Algiers (1965), currently all the rage in Washington because its themes of imperial power and local resistance, of tyranny and torture, and the mutual antagonism of Europeans and Arabs, are somehow considered vaguely relevant to events in the Middle East...

H is for Hoardings and Hotels, lining the Croisette and battling for your attention. If you're anyone with clout, you'll have a suite at the Carlton, the Majestic or the Eden Roc. Not that they look at their most chic at festival time; it's hard to preserve one's dignity and reputation for old-world glamour when there's a cardboard mock-up of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man clambering over your upper windows and a gigantic 10ft hoarding of Monica Bellucci spilling its enbonpoint all over the foyer. Also Helmer (see Magazines).

I is for Inclusiveness. No matter how many arty commentators revile the festival, everybody comes to Cannes. Ten thousand film-makers, producers, journalists and members of the public descend on the town every May - and 3,562 feature films were sent in for M. Frémaux's scrutiny this year. No other film festival attracts that level of urgency.

J is for the great Jean-Luc Godard, the cineaste's cineaste, who will be at the festival, launching Notre Musique, a triptych of dialogue-free sequences set to music. Godard's legendarily difficult art gives the festival a lot of serious intellectual credibility. Just wait until you hear the Parisians explaining the plot to their girlfriends in the bar of the Majestic...

K is for Buster Keaton, the late king of silent film comedy, whose masterpiece The General will be shown in a spanking new print, with a fab new score performed by a live orchestra.

L is for Laminates. Every delegate, producer, journalist and cameraman has to carry one. They're colour-coded to indicate your importance and rights of entry to events. Bottom of the scale is a yellow pass that scores you a free lime cordial in the Press Bar, but nothing else. Then blue and green. Top of the scale is a pink-with-yellow-spots laminate, which gets you into premieres and press conferences. Rumours exist of an even higher, platinum-Amex-style card that gets you into "everything bar Meg Ryan's knickers". It's also for Launch Party; for example, the epic thrash Miramax threw last year for The Matrix Reloaded. It cost $1m. No journalists were invited. It still rankles. This year's biggies are the Kill Bill Volume 2 party, the Vanity Fair do and the MTV thrash, to be opened by Cameron Diaz.

M is for Michael Moore, whose new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, his first since Bowling for Columbine, is in competition and will cause all manner of ructions. Moore will undoubtedly use the press conference to inveigh against President Bush's suspiciously cosy links with the Bin Laden family - and against the Disney Corporation for refusing to distribute the film. Also for free Magazines distributed to every hotel, restaurant and bar every morning; you have to learn the strange abbreviated language of the trade ( pic meaning the film, thesp meaning actor, helmer meaning director, prexy meaning president and "BO holding well despite post-Easter blahs" meaning God knows what).

N is for Negotiations, the main activity. All over the big hotels, inside the white beachside tents of Cannes Village, thousands of independent movie producers are selling ideas ("It's sort of Sylvia meets Pirates of the Caribbean, really, with this really hot soundtrack...") to suspicious and cynical buyers from the big studios, who will promise to get on board only provided that Keira Knightley and Hugh Grant have definitely committed.

O is for 'Ohmigod, this is crap,' the thought that occurs to you in the stalls, half an hour into a film that was promised as "gripping and suspenseful". It's not. You'd rather cut off your arm than watch on. My all-time "Ohmigod" movie was an Argentine treat called La Cruz Del Sur, a work of stupefying misery and despair about a violent, crack-smoking smuggler, his silent, weeping girlfriend, his transexual brother and his dysfunctional parents who live in a depopulated seaside resort on a hill filled with skeletons.

P is for Press. Nowhere do the massed ranks of the world's press feel as frustrated, marginalised, impotent and neglected as at Cannes. There are four basic rules: 1) the premiere of any big movie will be at 8.30am, when you're barely awake after the yacht party the night before; 2) any possible chance for a bouncer or doorman or laminate-inspector to say: "Non monsieur, c'est complet/fini/impossible" will be seized with alacrity; 3) Cannes press officers are charming and beautiful people, but will never actually tell you what's happening in the next 24 hours; and 4) requests to interview stars or directors (which should have been fixed up back in January) will be greeted with hoots of scorn. And for the Palme d'Or, the big competition prize, conferring instant global fame and kudos on the winner. Previous winners include Elephant and Pulp Fiction. And the Palais de Film, where the major screenings are held. And Protests - up to 100,000 part-time French actors plan to disrupt Cannes this year with demonstrations against benefit cuts.

Q is for Quentin Tarantino, chairman of the Palme d'Or judges this year: a brilliant coup for the festival.

R is for the Red Carpet. You really know you've made it, O big-shot director and bulimic leading lady, when you finally totter down the festival's unusually long and wide scarlet riband, smiling at the yelling crowds (80,000 people packed on the Croisette watching you on big screens), pretending not to notice the 768,460 cameras flashing away at you.

S is for Stars. Hollywood A-listers are out in force: Tarantino and his leading lady, Uma Thurman (for Kill Bill Volume 2), Tom Hanks (for The Ladykillers - it's his first trip to Cannes: "If you grow up conscious of motion-picture culture, Cannes is this thing that's bigger than life," he said), Brad Pitt (for Troy) and Shrek 2 stars Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz.

T is for Topless and Tits, a feature of the festival since its inception. Oh happy days, when photographers could hang around the beach and be sure that some fetching ingénue would lose her bra in freak storm/sudden breeze/bizarre perished-elastic accident, and cling to the manly chest of Robert Mitchum/Gregory Peck/Cary Grant to cover her embarrassment, while snappers recorded the event for Picture Post and Le Monde. Now you get a few sunbathers on warm afternoons, but the starlets and the guilty thrill are gone. Last year, the beach was full of middle-aged British ladies launching Calendar Girls to shouts of "Keep 'em on!"

U is for Un Certain Regard, a kind of younger sibling to the festival's main selection. A forum for serious experiments, short films and first features, though seasoned punters tend to steer clear of the more brow-knitting works.

V is for Cannes Village, a canvas hamlet of white tents on the beach, where smaller film companies flog their wares and drink unfeasible amounts of wine. Also the scene of some picturesque rows, such as when Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, came last year to open the new UK Film Centre and was roundly abused by the late Alexander Walker for throwing away lottery money on crap movies. It's also for Variety (see Magazines). And Vera Drake by Mike Leigh (starring Imelda Staunton as a Fifties abortionist), which everyone thought would be in the competition, but wasn't chosen.

W is for 'Will it play in Wisconsin?' - the question that's bugging the typical LA film buyer as he emerges from House of Flying Daggers, the gory Chinese martial-arts movie from Zhang Yimou. Also for World premieres, of which there will be 46 in the next 10 days.

X is for X-rated Cinema. In a festival offering several hundred movies, there's always a guaranteed blast of porn somewhere among the competition entries, from Lars Von Trier's hard-core Idioterne to Vincent Gallo's protracted blow-job in The Brown Bunny last year. Moments of vivid smut are greeted with silence in English cinemas. At Cannes, there are cries of "Bravo!"

Y is for Yacht. Dozens of the things are moored side-by-side at the western end of the port, and parties are thrown on them every night. Lots of complicated Euro-hairstyles, costume jewellery, UVA suntans, cranberry-based cocktails, and cries of "down the hatch!" (which people take quite literally, after midnight).

Z is for the Zone. Most of the Cannes experience is about alienation, missing the boat, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, missing the interview, being locked out of the screening, the launch, the party, missing the action, waking at 7am, retiring at 3am, seeing the wrong film, weeping with fury, cursing the organisers. But sometimes, when you link up with fellow movie fans at the Petit Majestique bar, with the evening light caressing the brickwork, and shoot the filmic breeze and complain about your failure to interview Clint or Uma, and you fall to talking about movies you like, a feeling of camaraderie steals over you. You are the In Crowd, the A Team, in the Zone. You are arty footsoldiers who put in the battles and have the medals to prove it. And surviving Cannes entitles you to the biggest decoration of all.

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