The yachts! The girls! The total humiliation!

Eye witness: Cannes. Party time for the beautiful people - and the odd movie

In the Café Claridge, on the waterfront at Cannes, a mime artist dressed all in gold, from his top hat to his ludicrous boots, is cranking the handle on an old- fashioned film camera, turning its lens this way and that to capture images of the café crowd that regards him with je m'en fou boredom. The camera is a fake, so is the man, but there is something threatening about the swivelling lens. It's easy to feel intimidated here by the ubiquity of celluloid and the glamour of the Cannes population in their €600 black jackets, their €200 blonde highlights and burnt orange tans.

In the Café Claridge, on the waterfront at Cannes, a mime artist dressed all in gold, from his top hat to his ludicrous boots, is cranking the handle on an old- fashioned film camera, turning its lens this way and that to capture images of the café crowd that regards him with je m'en fou boredom. The camera is a fake, so is the man, but there is something threatening about the swivelling lens. It's easy to feel intimidated here by the ubiquity of celluloid and the glamour of the Cannes population in their €600 black jackets, their €200 blonde highlights and burnt orange tans.

In children's shops on rue d'Antibes, long swags of shiny camera film have been ruched and gathered into rustling party skirts. In the sports shop beside the Grand Hotel, the window display of expensive golf equipment has been infiltrated by three canvas directors' chairs. On the esplanade, the noble façade of the Carlton Hotel has disappeared behind a monstrous cardboard mock-up of steel gates and gigantic faces that morph from male to female as you walk by – yes, it's Terminator 3 overkill.

Getting behind the virtual reality of this movie world is no easy task. Wherever journalists gather at Cannes, you'll hear a siren cry of whingeing frustration at their treatment by the festival's capricious and all-powerful PR people. Only by shameless sucking up and chronic grovelling will you be able to attend that screening, to interview that star, to sit at that table, to get past the bouncers at that party. The first rule of Cannes is that nobody will tell you anything. The second rule is that all French officials and security men delight in stopping you from doing anything, if they possibly can. Whole days are spent visiting the offices of British PR agents, queuing like supplicants at a shrine. Can I interview Deborah Harry, who's in the new Peter Greenaway film? No, the only two slots have gone. Can I talk to Helen Mirren about Calendar Girls? No, we're not giving interviews to the British press, we're saving that coverage for the London launch. Can I come to the Matrix Reloaded party? You must be joking.

By Friday night things are looking more promising. In the Noga Hilton, the new film by Roger (Notting Hill) Michell and Hanif Kureishi, The Mother, has just had its first, triumphant screening. Spotlights pick out Daniel Craig, who plays a priapic, Lawrentian young lover, and Anne Reid, who gives a staggeringly honest and subtle performance as a sixtysomething woman for whom the description "you old tart" is a huge compliment.

The team advances through the hot streets like a victorious platoon to the Villa Antoine, where candle lanterns hang from the bushes in the courtyard, and beautiful women bring lamb kebabs and noodles. My conversation with a Swedish distributor ends when I suggest that the movie is Bergmanesque – it's heretical even to mention the great man's name. Later, I meet Allan Scott, the legendary screen writer of Don't Look Now, and am struck dumb with awe. He has a dozen projects on the go, but cannot quite put the financing together – a dilemma echoed approximately four million times a day at Cannes. But Scott is drinking Taittinger with Duncan Kenworthy and Michael White, the veteran producers, and a pair of volcanically bosomy companions, and none of them seems desolated by the temporary lack of green lights. Kureishi beams, Anne Reid is beatific, Colin McCabe, academic and cultural studies star, does his weird bellowing laugh, the man from Sight and Sound discusses Peter Greenaway's obsession with prisons, and a crooner sings "Fly Me to the Moon" in the style of Buddy Greco. But because there are other parties to check out, a stroll to the Croisette brings you the dazzlingly over-the-top spectacle of Cannes at night – a mad caravanserai of lights, palm trees, slow-moving Mercedes and Ferraris and thoroughbred mahogany-coloured women.

On Rado Beach, a party is in progress for the launch of Wondrous Oblivion, a new British film about cricket and racism in Sixties English suburbia. The beach has accordingly been transformed for a Jamaican Calypso Nite complete with steel band, rum punch, bottles of Red Stripe and tables of mango and jerk chicken. Twentysomething girls sit in a giggly circle with their piña coladas, and lots of French film types stand around wearing that odd combination of skinny-black-jumper-inside-dark-suit.

There's nobody I know. I am wholly out of my depth among the jeunesse dorée of the Anglo-French movie community. A wave of stranded melancholy crashes over me. This is the worst thing about Cannes: if you're in the loop, you're okay provided you work at it all the time, all year round. If you are an outsider, you're in danger of being shut out, doomed to wander along the hard glittery exterior of the festival, the Norman No-Mates of the Croisette ...

But look – phew! – here is Baz Bamigboye, the charming showbiz writer from the Daily Mail, and here is Neil from the Evening Standard, and somebody is saying, "Did you know that Meg Mathews is hosting a party on a yacht this evening?" And there are 40 minutes to kill before your rendezvous with friends at the Petit Majestic bar at midnight, where le tout can congregate for a gossip and the streets are full of smashed glass and spilt rosé wine and life is suddenly almost bearable in this town of glossy surfaces and howling anxiety. You do not know how you got into this movie, but you wish somebody would soon shout "Cut!", and let you go home.

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