9:15 a.m. My plane touches down in Paris 10 minutes early, which is good, because I have to get to Orly Airport, which is on the other side of the city, in order to catch my flight to Nice. I travel light: a small duffle bag and a backpack, which contains my laptop, passport, and a book (The Year 1000 by Henri Focillon) which I have packed out of habit, but will almost certainly not read. On the bus to Orly, a Hungarian woman has what appears to be an epileptic seizure, sending us passengers into a multi-lingual flurry of concern, aid, and misinformation. The flight to Nice takes 80 minutes; I sleep through it.
5 p.m. Having used my extremely limited French to rent a bike, I make my way over to my hotel. I am staying in Juan-Les-Pins, one town over from Cannes. The owner of the hotel is Frederic. He wears rimless glasses and an all-white uniform of polo shirt, pleated shorts, and Velcro sneakers. Two dead palm trees loom over the hotel patio. Without their fronds, they resemble the chimneys of a termite colony. Frederic tells me that his palms were killed by the red palm weevil, which he believes will one day kill off all of the palm trees in Juan-Les-Pins.
8 a.m. The bike ride to Cannes takes about half an hour. Here, on the Côte D’Azur, the towns are packed so close together that you wouldn’t know that you were leaving or entering one if it weren’t for the road signs. Until, of course, you hit the distinctive main stretch of Cannes, and the narrow Boulevard De La Croisette, with its white Art Deco hotels. The red carpet is being prepared in front of the Palais, the main complex of the festival. Metal barriers have been set up, and behind them are rows of ladders, kept in place with chains and heavy duty bike locks. Later in the evening, these will be filled with photographers with long, expensive-looking lenses.
1:05 p.m. Like many here, I opt to skip the press screening for the opening night film, Standing Tall. Instead, my first film of the festival is Our Little Sister (Grade: C+, but could go up), Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest two-plus hours of pointless lateral camera movements accompanied by twinkly piano. Adapted from a josei manga called Umimachi Diary, the film concerns three grown-up sisters who meet their teenage half-sister after their’s father’s death, and invite her to live with them in their big dilapidated house in seaside Kamakura. It inhabits an idealized universe, where everyone acts touchingly decent and every article of clothing hangs just right.
The characterizations are simple: nurse Sachi (Haruka Ayase) is the eldest and most responsible, jokingly referred to as the “dorm mom”; bank clerk Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) tends to date losers; oddball Chika (Kaho) works in a sporting goods store with her schlubby boyfriend; and 15-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose) is precocious and loves soccer. There is a certain kick to watching a movie go out of its way to be as uncomplicated as possible, ending every potential conflict just as its about to start; even the unexpected arrival of the elder girls’ estranged mother at the halfway point can’t seem to disrupt the gentle lull.
And that’s sort of the point. This is, for the most part, a movie about how people should behave, rather than how they do, its worldview summed up by the character of a cafe owner (Rirî Furankî) who specializes in whitebait toast and speaks with the reassuring cadence of a late-period Ozu character, addressing everything and everyone with mild bemusement. The “little things”—generally food, and more specifically whitebait, horse mackerel, seafood curry, and homemade plum wine—are expounded upon, while the death of an important supporting character happens completely offscreen.
This sort of idyll could be absorbing, if only Koreeda (Like Father, Like Son, Still Walking) hadn’t become such a pedestrian stylist in recent years. In almost every shot, he inches the camera left to right with no real purpose except to liven up what are essentially flat, static compositions, like a journeyman TV director. This style isn’t so much invisible as aimless. I can name just two instances where he moves the camera purposefully in this film: the first half of the opening sequence, which moves from Yoshino’s foot to her face before continuing to drift toward the window, and an all-too-brief shot that follows a bicycle through a tunnel of cherry blossoms.
4 p.m. This is the opening day of Cannes, which means that there isn’t much to see; the parallel Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine) and Critics’ Week (Semaine) festivals don’t start until tomorrow, and there’s nothing interesting playing in the Marché, the industry market that actually makes up the bulk of the screenings in Cannes, many of them held in small and non-glamorous theaters in the town proper.
I ran into my friend and former editor, Danny, earlier in the day, and because this is my first time covering the festival and because we have a lot of time to kill, he leads me on a short tour around town. On our way back, we cut through a small street wedged between a hotel and an Anglican church. This, we discover, is where the official car fleet of the festival is washed between events, so that every black Mercedes and Renault pulls up to the red carpet spotlessly clean. Drivers in black suits stand around smoking, while staff members get down on their hands and knees on the pavement to wash the hubcaps and bumpers by hand.
7:14 p.m. Matteo Garrone’s Tale Of Tales (Grade: the B- of perverse admiration) starts late in the Debussy theater. It is the only other film I will see on my first day: a bizarre, seemingly undirected, and yet somehow still compelling collection of fairy tales that brings to mind Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy Of Life and less successful efforts like Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper.
Making his English-language debut, Garrone (Gomorrah) has assembled a crazy-quilt cast, none of whom appear to be acting in the same movie, and a vast assortment of fantastical imagery: albino twins who can breathe underwater; a sea monster harpooned by a man in a suit of armor and a diving helmet; an old woman turning young after being breastfed by a forest hag; Toby Jones exclaiming, “You must tell no one what you have seen this evening!” with his arms wrapped around a flea the size of a Shetland pony. It is as strange and unpredictable as Our Little Sister is lulling.
Loosely inspired by the seminal 17th century book of the same title, Tale Of Tales trades in narrative left turns. There is the story of a horny king (Vincent Cassel, in full-on big bad wolf mode) who falls in love with the voice of a dye-maker; a princess (Bebe Cave) with a head full of romantic poetry; a king and queen (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, the former giving what might be his only bad performance) who will do anything to have a child; identical boys (Christian and Jonah Lees) born supernaturally to different mothers. Some of them intersect, some of them don’t, and some are daisy-chained together by gruesome and imaginative twists.
It’s a mess of neat practical effects and shoddy digital compositions, ingenious storytelling and atrocious dialogue, rich with half-baked ideas and unexplained refractions, with mismatched accents and competing vocal inflections cascading over a luxurious Alexandre Desplat score. It is funny, mostly intentionally, and occasionally off-putting in a way that’s hard not to admire.
9:43 p.m. Sitting in one of the dim, quiet back streets of Cannes, I shoot off a quick email to my editor, Alex, known to regular readers here as A.A. Dowd. My Cannes kit is minimal: I carry only a printed schedule, a pocket-sized notebook, a pen, and my phone, which, as it turns out, has free data roaming in France. I tell him that I want to write my daily Cannes dispatches in a time-stamp format, which will make it easier to organize my impressions, and seems fun. He writes back that this gimmick can grow old very quickly, “for you and the reader.”