Cannes 2019, Day 1: Waiting for film stars, zombies and scandal

Cinema's players, would-be players, film buffs and celebrity-watchers descended on the French Riviera on Tuesday as the 72nd Cannes Film Festival swung into action with Jim Jarmusch’s star-studded zombie fest.

Focus Features | Iggy Pop stars in Jim Jarmusch's Cannes curtain-raiser, "The Dead Don't Die."

Hours before the festival’s curtain-raiser, clusters of bystanders formed outside the grand hotels that line the seaside Promenade de la Croisette, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone famous drifting out of the lobby and into a waiting car. Others jealously guarded their stools, folding chairs and ladders positioned at the foot of the famed red carpet leading to Cannes' Palais des Festivals.

Out on the restaurant terraces, Hollywood types talked shop and swapped business cards, shouting above the usual techno music. The film critics, meanwhile, were scratching their heads wondering just how they would cram the festival’s 50-odd films – and the time to write about them – into just 12 days.

As per custom, Day 1 of the festival has just one film on offer, Jim Jarmusch’s curtain-raiser “The Dead Don’t Die”, a star-studded zombie satire in which local cops Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver battle the undead.

The supporting cast, many of them Jarmusch regulars, includes Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits – making it a dream opening night for the red-carpet photographers, who were somewhat starved of Hollywood glitz last year.

>> Read more: Cannes 2019 preview: Horror, Hollywood and the Hand of God

The much-touted return of big stars from Tinseltown is terrific news for Cannes, since the world’s premier movie festival is as much about the glamour as the films. It’s also a financial boon for this otherwise sleepy Riviera town of 74,000 inhabitants, which sees its population treble for two weeks each May.

With its 40,000 accredited cinema professionals and twice as many visitors, the festival is a goldmine for the town’s 133 hotels, which soon fill up despite charging extortionate rates. Those closest to the Croisette, which is lined with high-end designer boutique and stretches along the seafront of the Mediterranean Sea, push room prices up fivefold overnight. However, they face growing competition from local residents who go camping up the coast in order to rent out their homes for the festival’s duration, making as much as six months' rent in less than two weeks.

As always, a massive but discreet security apparatus has sprung into action, with the movie stars, industry executives and tens of thousands of visitors bringing professional criminals and petty thieves in their wake.

Cannes is the most densely monitored town in the country, with 639 CCTV cameras – one for every 115 residents. Some 700 police officers patrol the streets, a tight maritime security net is in place, and the main roads in and out of town are closely watched.

While preventing terrorist attacks remains a priority, jewel heists generally constitute the main headache for police. During the 2013 event, just one thief stole diamond-encrusted necklaces and other jewellery worth almost €140 million from the illustrious Carlton Hotel, once the setting of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, "To Catch a Thief". Two years later, masked men burst into a Cartier store on the Croisette and made off with booty worth more than €17 million. The brazen heist was inspired by the 1973 film “Happy New Year”, in which Lino Ventura dons a mask before raiding a jewellers on the famed boulevard.

There have been no major robberies since, and the run-up to this year’s event has also largely avoided the scandals and polemics typically associated with the world’s most glamorous festival (and which much of the press here feeds on).

Having cast a pall over the last two editions, Cannes’ festering dispute with Netflix has taken a backseat this time. It helped that the streaming behemoth had comparatively little to deny Cannes – at least nothing to compare with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, which was pulled from last year’s event and went to Venice instead.

Organisers have also tempered criticism of the festival’s dismal gender equality record by taking a series of measures to improve the gender balance at Cannes, most notably in the juries and selection committees. There are still only four women among the 21 filmmakers vying for the Palme d’Or this year – one more than last year and three more than in 2013 – but female directors account for just over a quarter of all films in this year’s official selection, signalling an improvement on past editions and matching the share of films submitted by women.

Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only female director to win a Palme d'Or, pictured with other past laureates at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.
Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only female director to win a Palme d'Or, pictured with other past laureates at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Aside from debates about the films, cases of sexism and sexual harassment generate many of the scandals that typically punctuate the festival. In 2016, there was “heelgate”, when women in flat shoes were barred from the red carpet. Then came the controversial airbrushing of Claudia Cardinale on the official poster for the 70th festival edition.

Some have sought to stir controversy in the run-up to this year’s event with an online petition that blasts Cannes over its decision to award French screen legend Alain Delon an honourary Palme d’Or, describing the 83-year-old actor as a “racist, homophobic misogynist”.

“We’re not going to give the Nobel Peace Prize to Delon. We’re giving him an honorary Palme for his career as an actor,” a visibly irritated Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director, told reporters on Monday, slamming some in the press as the “political thought police”.

But the nascent polemic was met with a sigh and a shrug on the Croisette, where legions of journos were eager to get on with the films. Many were still trying to wrap their heads around the unusually complex screenings guide, pulling out calculators, diaries and Google calendars to make sense of the various press screenings, VIP press screenings, press-friendly red-carpet screenings and morning-after screenings, and then determine if and when they could watch the lot – including Abdellatif Kechiche’s prohibitively long sequel, “Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo” (clocking in at 240 minutes, and with a third part to come).

That’s assuming they stick to the festival’s programme. As one US critic put it a few years ago: “The best film I saw at Cannes was the last episode of Mad Men,” watched on a laptop in an overpriced hotel room.

This year's poster shows Agnès Varda standing on the shoulders of a technician, shooting her first film "La Pointe Courte" in 1954 when she was 26.
This year's poster shows Agnès Varda standing on the shoulders of a technician, shooting her first film "La Pointe Courte" in 1954 when she was 26. Cannes Film Festival

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app