As the lights dimmed in the Grand Theatre Lumiere in Cannes on Tuesday evening, and the opening notes to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of Animals” echoed over the loudspeakers, one could almost imagine themselves back in the normal swing of things.
In some respects, the opening night of the three-day ‘Special Cannes’ program felt very much like a return to halcyon days. Announced in late September, the mini-festival is intended to honor the Cannes 2020 selection with a showcase of four films that received the prestigious label, as well as the full Cinefondation lineup and a short film competition.
At Tuesday’s opening screening of Emmanuel Courcol’s crowd-pleasing comedy drama “The Big Hit,” the security measures were more elaborate than ever; the state-of-the-art auditorium was at full capacity; and the screening was prefaced by a typically effusive introduction from Cannes delegate general Thierry Fremaux, among others.
Only, the 1,000 attendees weren’t exactly back in the good old pre-pandemic days. Security measures dictated that every attendee keep their mask on throughout the film, with each filmgoer seated at least one seat apart from their neighbor on either side. This meant that ‘capacity’ was less than one half of what the 2,300-seat auditorium can otherwise allow.
If the mood inside the theater was vibrant, Fremaux’s opening remarks were a reminder of the bittersweet circumstances that forced the Cannes Film Festival to claim this pop-up opportunity in the first place.
“When we returned to this theater, where we had not stepped foot since May 2019, we all felt our hearts pinch,” said Fremaux, referencing the festival’s tough-but-inevitable decision to cancel its physical component this past summer. “[With this event], we wanted to light this screen up anew.”
Fremaux’s remarks, and those of festival president Pierre Lescure and Cannes mayor David Lisnard, both looked back at the edition that never was, and forward to what the festival might look like in years to come.
“In May, the [New York Times] wrote an article called ‘What Do We Lose When Cannes Is Canceled,’” Fremaux let out with an impish grin. “The article was so strong that we decided to cancel next year as well, because it seems we get better press when we don’t host a festival than when we do!”
But in describing the pared-back program, which features the aforementioned “The Big Hit,” along with Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers,” Dea Kulumbegashvili’s San Sebastian winner “Beginning,” and Bruno Podalydès’ “The French Tech,” Fremaux laid out a roadmap for how the festival perceives itself and how it might operate going forward.
“We have two French films, and two international ones,” Fremaux began. “As well as two films directed by men and two directed by women. [That kind of parity is] something we will apply as much as possible. We will display those convictions.”
In his remarks, Cannes mayor David Lisnard made the ongoing pandemic a focal point. “This edition incarnates this desire to come out of this stronger [than before], to fight and to overcome,” said Lisnard.
Highlighting the “particularly draconian” security protocols — which include in-theater air purification, temperature controls and disinfection sprays upon entering the Palais des Festivals — Lisnard made implicit the municipal authority’s goal to see a successful physical iteration of the festival in 2021.
“This is an exhortation,” said the mayor. “We need to make it understood that culture is a source of economic development, a source of social wealth, and a source of life…It’s a demonstration that we can and we should hold events while assuring the health and safety of all who attend. We will continue to fight to prove that we can do so.”
And it goes without saying that when the festival makes its long-awaited return in 2021, many of these new measures will be here to stay.
For the time being, however, attendees will have to cope with the more restrictive measures put in place by the French government in recent weeks. With COVID-19 cases on the rise and showing no signs of slowing within the days to come, national authorities instituted a countrywide 9 p.m. curfew on Oct. 24, and President Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to announce a new lockdown later this week.
On the ground in Cannes, that means each screening must allow ample time for festivalgoers to get home or back to hotels before the clock strikes nine. When “The Big Hit” came to a close, drawing cheers and applause from the impassioned audience, the film’s cast and crew had just enough time to take the stage for a victory lap.
At 8:20 p.m., the film’s director and stars stood onstage, enjoying their acclaim. But just five minutes later, Fremaux was urging attendees to file out quickly, reminding them to, “keep your masks on, wash your hands and get home before 9 p.m. to have a bowl of soup.”
By 8:30 p.m. on the dot, the Grand Theatre Lumiere was empty.