I tend to spend my days at the Cannes Film Festival sheltering in the stronghold of the Palais, relatively safe amongst my fellow hacks, a good percentage of whom are every bit as pale and socially dysfunctional as myself. Yet sometimes the lure of the sun, the undertow of curiosity, and the tug of showbiz glamour is too intoxicating a cocktail to resist, and I head outside to join the crowds.
Let's be clear about this, if you were selecting the absolute worst location to hold an international film festival - a place of optimum inconvenience, frustration and pandemonium for the tens of thousands of buyers, journalists and filmmakers all simultaneously descending on said event like so many rapacious vultures - then the Promenade de la Croisette, the seafront at Cannes, would probably come a very close second to the remotest wilds of Siberia. Pretty much the only thing in its favour is the Palais des Festival itself and the array of mighty fine movie theatres held within.
Beyond the sanctuary of those high walls you find yourself confronted with a slim stretch of sand lapped by the waters of the Mediterranean, a few busy lanes of traffic – the roads in Cannes are so perpetually rammed as to make the rush hour M25 look like the Sea of Tranquility – and a narrow pavement on the far side, bordered by luxury shops and mammoth hotels. Space is at a premium (to be honest, everything is at a premium in Cannes but more on that in a second) as residents, tourists (it is a holiday town after all) and festival-heads all try to get where they're going, their chosen routes to their various destinations inevitably blocked by representatives from one or more of the other factions. And as this sidewalk logjam goes on, the roads play host to hair-brained promotional schemes for some of the lesser-known cinematic product to have pitched up, the below truck-carried advert for '#1 hit' Stricken being a fairly typical example of such.
That's only the state of play during normal hours; when the time arrives for one of the black tie premieres at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the carnage really commences. Even over the course of the normal day, there are crowds permanently gathered by the entrances to the Croisette's swankiest hotels, such as the Carlton and the Martinez, hungry for a brush with A-List celebrity, on tenterhooks as the shiny black fleets of Mercedes swish back and forth, each time utterly convinced that a fabulous megastar is seated within. These crowds swell exponentially during the run-up to premiere screenings, and the police step in to try and corral them and allow traffic to pass safely through. Meanwhile, the usual stream of humanity is still endeavouring to get wherever it is that each individual wants to be going. It is, to be blunt, a hellish mess, as maniacally chaotic as if London premieres were held on Oxford Street rather than in Leicester Square.
The crowds are even larger by the Lumière itself, bodies packed tightly around and against the crash barriers as the sharply-attired invitees enjoy their two minutes strutting up the red carpet. Photographers grab snapshots of any guy in a tuxedo and girl in a shimmering frock who approach the crimson rug, employing the better-safe-than-sorry tactic of shooting everyone and then deciding afterwards whether they were famous or not. A row of step ladders sit out in the strip dividing the Croisette's traffic lanes, affording the snappers suitable vantage point to pap their targets without getting endless shots of the back of the crowds' heads.
By no means everyone with tickets to those gala premieres is famous, or even anything to do with the film business. Further augmenting the human swell by the Palais are the ticket-beggars, those folks who stand by the main doors all day holding aloft handmade signs pleading for some kind-hearted bigshot to bestow upon them an invitation to whatever that day's main movie is. There are so many of these sign-wavers that one can only assume this tactic does at least occasionally yield success, and indeed some people are so optimistic about landing a pass that they get suited up in their evening finery even before they have the scrap of paper that will grant them admission. So as showtime draws nearer, you often find yourself confronted by the, quite frankly, bloody odd sight of guys suited up, shoes shined, dickey bow in place, clutching a square of cardboard requesting a ticket. They are without doubt the nattiest dressed beggers you will ever clap eyes upon. Not everyone makes such an effort, mind.
Still, there are ample opportunities for everyone to get themselves dudded up down on the Croisette – provided they have the green in their wallet. I used the word 'premium' earlier and that succinctly summarises the level of pricing affixed to most items. Bars and restaurants are best visited with a wheelbarrow of cash pushed in front of you, so as to assure the waiter or maître d' that you are in no danger of being caught short when the heart palpitation-inducing bill arrives. The shops down on the front are also decidedly expensive too. Always be wary of any clothing emporium where they have fewer garments on sale than a Ferrari dealership has automobiles. If they only need to sell one pair of clogs a month to cover their overheads and turn a profit then the only sane conclusion has to be that – to paraphrase slightly Jerry Lacy's Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam – something has got turned around somewhere.
All this luxury co-exists with the typical trappings of a sun-soaked seafront, familiar to anyone who has ever taken a stroll down Venice Beach or any other comparable strip of sea and sand. Hawkers and novelty acts abound, from men in ponchos playing electrically amplified pan pipes to the oddball depicted below with the cats draped over his shoulders. Quite the freakiest thing I've seen at Cannes (and remember, I've seen Trash Humpers), he looks like a baby blue-clad, moggy-friendly version of – and I realise as references go this is probably a tad obscure – Red Jack, the loon from Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol who claimed to be both God and Jack the Ripper. There are sights less surprising too, with the glamour of the evening premieres being offset by the to-be expected gangs of French teens razzing round on scooters. Even these rapscallions are perhaps more lavishly resourced than their counterparts throughout the rest of the country though; as I passed one lad, he looking every bit the insouciant rebel astride his bike, his Blackberry slipped from his pocket and he was forced to fumble around on the ground for the PDA you more readily associate with on-the-go corporate high-flyers than youthful hooligans.
The activity down on the Croisette rarely dips. Even when the gala screenings are done with and the crowds have finally dispersed, the party-goers are ready to pick up the slack. As I walk home from late-night screenings, usually at around half-midnight or one, the marquees set up on the beach are just beginning to buzz, revellers heading to bashes laid on by the various film companies - the blokes dressed in shiny shirts, the girls in barely-there dresses. It is not just the beach parties that are raucous either, with the nightclubs and bars down the front shifting in to top gear as the clock ticks past midnight. One night, I was ambling past a venue and I found my eyes drifting towards an upstairs window from where some suitably thumping dance track was emanating. Framed in the window was a sequined backside, grinding like a runaway garden roller, before a hand suddenly wafted into view and commenced to spank the undulating posterior. Did the hand belong to the wearer of the sequins or an amorous other? One of the unsolved mysteries of Cannes 2010.