Return to the Riviera reveals rituals never change

A gallimaufry of gulls gathered at daybreak along the Croisette Tuesday, flapping their wings, clucking their beaks. Slowly it dawned on me that it probably wasn’t, at that hour, a promotional stunt being practised by some eager new film company; rather it was the avian equivalent of the human flock about to swoop down on the Riviera for a ritual almost as primordial as theirs.

I asked a local man perched along the Croisette later that morning if the birds typically congregated like that but he only responded cryptically, crustily, “Il y aura toujours des oiseaux,” I think he said.

Apparently the birds do sweep in and congregate before rain, carried along by the wind on the sea, but I don’t remember ever noticing them in past visits.

My last such stint at the fest was in 1992, the year an arty Swedish movie by Bille August, “Best Intentions,” won the Palme d’Or but the one in which the greatest hoopla surrounded the “Basic Instinct” stars Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone and the talent connected to “The Player” — Robert Altman and Tim Robbins, both of whom picked up trophies. The art and commerce dichotomy — think Wang Xiaoshuia and George Lucas on the same bill — seems as vibrant today as then.

What has changed is that the delegates — at least those with badges — are taller, thinner and younger than they seemed in the early 90’s. Back then only the Italians seemed glued to cellphones; now it would be death to be in Cannes without one. Back then if you didn’t know who Raul Ruiz or Atom Egoyan was, you either asked a veteran colleague or you just faked it; now you just go to Google or IMDB and fake from there.

Still some things are immutable. Cannes is sort of like the papacy. The recent succession to the throne of St Peter had the world engrossed for 10 days: Even if belief has broken down, the pageantry, the ritual accoutrements, the secrecy, made the world pause in awe.

So too with Cannes. Even if any kid with gumption and a camcorder can now make a movie, and even if every kid on a corner can buy a pirated disc for next to nothing, the gathering of the crowd in front of the Palais for those black-tie gala screenings are their own form of worship.

Like I said, il y aura toujours Cannes.