At Cannes Under COVID-19, Glamour Gets Unmasked

CANNES, France — For nearly everybody who has come to the Cannes Film Festival after months in various stages of lockdown and caution, the transition is head-spinning. 

Even in normal years, Cannes is an onslaught. But this time, plunging into full-capacity theaters and teeming red carpets is like stepping into another world. The morning after the Val Kilmer documentary "Val" premiered at Cannes, its co-director Ting Poo was still reeling. 

"Yesterday was so surreal. Just seeing the film with a full theater, and here at the most prestigious film festival," said Poo. "To go from not being around people to that experience in a day was incredible." 

The pandemic is far from invisible at Cannes. A negative COVID-19 test is required every 48 hours for even those vaccinated — unless they got their shots in the European Union. Moviegoers wear masks indoors. Everything is a little muted. Usually well-booked hotels have vacancies. Screenings that would typically leave hundreds queueing outside don't fill up. The usual tuxedoed ticket-seekers praying for a handout have been pushed away from the Palais, the festival hub, to clear space. 

But in places like the Cannes red carpet, life is almost normal — if "normal" can ever apply to a stretch of carpet where coteries of stars drift in every few hours like parade floats. Glamour has been unmasked, maybe more than any other time in the last year and a half of pandemic. 

Over the first few days of the 74th Cannes Film Festival — held two months later than usual, and after last year's edition was scrubbed entirely — the red carpet has looked much as it has always before. Marion Cotillard, Bella Hadid, Matt Damon, Helen Mirren and Adam Driver have all strolled along, though they may have all been outclassed, fashion-wise, by Spike Lee and his flamingo-pink Louis Vuitton suit. Most walk unmasked, as the carpet is outdoors and most attending are vaccinated — though proof isn't required. And there are no fewer photographers than usual jockeying for stars' attention.

The spectacle has picked up right where it left off. Nature, even the Cannes sequined variety, is healing. 

"It's a little bit like a strange dream, like waking up from this nap of two years doing nothing and suddenly: Boom," said Avshalom Pollak, star of Nadav Lapid's "Ahed's Knee," an impassioned Israeli drama competing for the Palme d'Or. "There is a very particular kind of feeling to it because it's like: Where is the world going? Is it restarting? Is it changing? What's going on here?"

Cannes is taking place on the heels of France easing COVID-19 restrictions and reopening international travel. About half the French have received at least one vaccination shot, while 38% are fully vaccinated. But the delta variant has pushed infections back up slightly recently, stoking fears of a resurgence. On Friday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said the delta variant would likely become France's dominant strain this weekend. 

That, along with images of unmasked attendees at premieres, has pushed the festival to increase pre-screening mask reminders. Swarming beachside after parties have been curtailed, in the hotels along the Croisette film publicists and executives have pushed their chairs out onto open-air balconies. Cannes mayor David Lisnard has even employed a pair of COVID-19-sniffing dogs to help with screening. 

Ahead of the festival, its director Thierry Frémaux said dinners would be more favored this year than cocktails. On the sun-dabbled French Riviera, most restaurants are spread out on the sidewalks. One major concession: Frémaux isn't greeting guests at the top of the Palais stairs with a kiss — though there have been a few rogue smooches. 

"The pandemic is not conquered" Frémaux said on Tuesday. "So we all have to be careful, even though most festival-goers are vaccinated."

But since there's such variation country to country in vaccination proof — the U.S., for example, has no official vaccine passport — the festival is requiring most to test every other day. The joke is that this year a negative test is the hottest ticket in Cannes. And while at first some complained about the less-than-elegant process of retreating to a cubicle to fill a tube with saliva, the tented lab just down the street from the Palais had become a regular stop for festivalgoers — just like the Palais Nespresso bar, only less refreshing. 

The specially erected testing site is staffed by 60 medical school students. The lab's director, Guillaume Armana, said Friday that they were conducting up to 4,000 tests daily. 

"We are working with the festival and the regional agency," said Armana, who said any positive tests would be confidential. "For now we have maybe 10,000 people to test and everything is under control. It's the best way to make a festival again here in Cannes and to let the people have a new life." 


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