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Caste and chaos in Cannes

Things don’t often look the same on television as they do in reality — and the Cannes Film Festival is no exception.

As a Frenchman, I have watched the festival on TV pretty much my entire life, admiring glamorous actresses in outrageous evening gowns and envying the great filmmakers who get to walk down the red carpet. In the background, I would always see the crowd cheering, trying to catch a glimpse of the stars.

What I didn’t see on TV is that the cheering crowd is not always a cheerful one. In the three days that I have been at the festival, I have witnessed two fights involving fans trying to get a closer to the red carpet, and a fellow journalist witnessed a fight between reporters.

The festival on the ground is not the smooth and glamorous stream of celebrities you see on TV. It is frantic, overwhelming and chaotic.

So much so that instead of gathering people around a common passion for movies, it seems to divide people and highlight social differences.

The people are divided in a caste-like system. On top are the celebrities; Cannes lives for them. Movie stars enjoy easy access to screenings, luxurious receptions and parties. Then, there is what one could call the “accredited caste” — which is itself divided into many subcategories. Those with the white “Press Parties” passes get priority access. I have a pink pass which is right under white, but above blue and yellow. A yellow could never get into a screening before a pink.

And of course, at the bottom is the crowd. Hundreds of people who beg accredited caste members to give them screening invitations — most of them use paper signs with the inscription “Invitations Please,” although I saw a man this morning doing the same but with an iPad. He told me it worked out pretty well for him.

I also met a man who took two weeks off work just to get a top spot in front of the red carpet. Dozens of people like him plant their camping chairs in front of the festival, and wait all day long, smoking and chatting, sometimes arguing. Some of them have done this for several years, and they obey an unwritten code of squatting etiquette.

I wonder if the industry’s biggest celebrities even realize the lengths some people will go to see them in the flesh. Do they find it amusing? Or do they think it's sad?

As for me, I made it to the press screening this morning of Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” after much elbowing and hassle (see video below). After this stressful experience, it hardly seemed worth it — why not just wait and buy a $12-ticket like everyone else?

But as the lights dimmed in the Grand Theatre Lumiere and the festival’s palm-shaped logo appeared on the huge screen before us, we saw a photo flash, then two more and then a dozen. Even among the jaded, accredited press caste there was genuine emotion and delight in the proof that they too had played a part in the festival’s drama.