FIRST-HAND : 'I nearly bumped into Jeanne Moreau'

Cannes (starting next week) is a gatecrasher's heaven. Antonia Feuchtwanger went last year

I HAD just made the biggest mistake you can make at the Cannes film festival. I looked the wrong way when the star walked past.

A police escort was waiting by the tables outside the Italian restaurant I liked in the back streets above the harbour. A journalist lying in wait told me Jeanne Moreau was inside. But I dithered too long over my order, and when the waiter had gone, so had Jeanne Moreau.

The whole point of Cannes for camp-followers like me is the chance to play spot the celebrity. But you have to work at it. When I arrived, I couldn't understand why on earth the thick crowds of locals, resident expatriates and film world hangers-on were staring right at me. I felt acutely self-conscious. I checked my face in a shop window for food stains or worse.

Then I realised that everyone was staring at everyone else, determined not to miss a single face that could, just possibly, be famous. The fewer celebrities there are, and I kept being told there weren't as many as in the good old days, the harder everyone plays the game of trying to spot Clint or Jeanne behind their shades.

I drove straight for the main drag by the sea, La Croisette. The craziness of holding a film festival in a cramped Riviera town squeezed between steep hills and the sea was obvious. I wondered whether I would have to spend the week in a hot traffic jam.

The crowds made the narrow streets leading to the waterfront impassable. Parking was more expensive per hour than a hotel bed. Most people I was to meet were dazed by the sheer struggle of getting from A to B.

When I finally made it on to the palm-lined Croisette in early evening, however, it was worth it. The yachts out in the bay, the performance artists, the avenues of lights leading to the beaches and the slowly cruising convertibles looked like California would with the French in charge.

Admittedly, almost anything can look glamorous to someone who has just escaped from five months of changing nappies. But it's impossible not to feel the charge in the air at Cannes. And as I met film folk, I could hear the dream factory at work.

Everyone I met was tense with the excitement of trying to sell their unmissable script or sign the ultimate distribution deal. The thrill of chasing a big killing or a backer for the film its creator knows the world is waiting for, swept me up. Faced with evidence of the improbable movies that have actually been made, I had to suspend disbelief. It was a week of sharing impossible enthusiasms and hope.

Behind the dance floor at an ancient villa in the old town, I found myself listening entranced as an actor who used to be in menswear retailing told me about his role in a sure-fire hit about King Arthur, returning to reclaim his kingdom via a Blackpool bedsit. Guinevere was a municipal park attendant. I even went to see that one, before it sank without trace.

The festival itself is much easier to crash than any of the bored reviewers who write about it admit. There are public screenings, and it's not hard to talk your way into the private ones.

The parties are supposed to be exclusive, but if you look right you can get in. I had a small bet with my husband that Parker Posey (her real name), an unstoppable New Yorker who plays the girl squatter in Hal Hartley's Amateur, would make it into the private beach party thrown at midnight by MTV.

With the help of an attention-grabbing skirt made from an airline seat safety cover reading "Please Find Opening Below", she cruised towards the bouncers. Briefly meeting their eyes, she was across the frontier between La Croisette and the hotels' exclusive beaches. She wasn't the only one. I heard afterwards that MTV's drinks bill had turned out colossal, perhaps because the invitations were made to be worn as masks and it was impossible to tell who was underneath them.

Once the self-consciousness induced by the staring crowds wore off, I found I could play the game myself. Photographers are even hungrier than the crowds to spot stars, or at least a decent picture caption. Escaping MTV, I carried my five-month-old son George past the poster for a Joe Mantegna movie, Baby's Day Out. Three agency snappers and a Dutch TV crew screeched, "Stop!" Flashguns flashed. A starlet from Central Asia saw her chance and grabbed George to her terrifying cleavage.

"The baby's going into a feeding frenzy," warned a cameraman, spotting what could have been the first time breasts had ever been exploited for their original purpose on a Cannes beach. But I realised I was out of my depth when the starlet's wolfish promoter, whose name, incredibly, was Mr Vulpio, closed in to arrange George for the cameras.

And when two stunning Italian directors rushed up to announce that the bambino's smile was the only truly authentic expression they'd seen all week, I decided I'd had enough. I'd never seen any films with that Jeanne Moreau anyway.

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