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Penn-in-Cannes: Global Cinema in the South of France

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Penn-in-Cannes: Global Cinema in the South of France

By Heather Holmes

It was early in the morning in the south of France. The mid-May sun hadn’t fully come up yet and the day was still cool and quiet. But in a small inlet along the French Riviera called Cannes, several men were loudly hawking newspapers, espresso machines were up and running, and Penn students in tuxedos and sundresses lined up by the newly swept red carpet, waiting for a morning screening. At the Cannes Film Festival, there’s no time to sleep in. The day is already moving on without you.

This year, thirty Penn students traveled to Cannes for thirteen days of nonstop spectatorship, accompanied by Nicola M. Gentili (Associate Director of Penn Cinema Studies, and Director of Penn-in-Cannes) and film professor Meta Mazaj. Though many of us were somehow involved in Penn’s film program — majors, minors, enthusiastic course-takers — the 2014 iteration of Penn-in-Cannes fostered impressive disciplinary diversity among its participants. In a meeting with Jeff Berg, the chairman and CEO of Resolution talent agency, during the festival, all thirty of us introduced ourselves and shared what personal, academic, and professional aspirations brought us to Cannes. The room was filled with engineers, film theorists, and historians, as well as hopeful future screenwriters, producers, directors, and actors. And some of us didn’t know. Some of us were there simply because this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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What brought us together was our common task, which was, incredibly, to watch films. A lot of films. All day long. We were officially required to watch twenty-five films over the course of two weeks, but several students surpassed that number, their lists climbing up into the high thirties. This meant waiting in line for and watching four or five feature-length films every day for the duration of the program. This year, the sixty-seventh Cannes Film Festival brought a dizzying array of directorial talent to the screens small and large that lined the Boulevard de la Croisette. The various Cannes juries highlighted household names like Jean-Luc Godard as well as newcomers like Ryan Gosling, who made his directorial debut with his film Lost River. And though watching several films each day along the southern coast of France in the company of the rich and the famous doesn’t exactly sound like hard work, we Penn-in-Cannes folks take films very seriously.

The average Cannes day started early in the morning at the Collège International de Cannes, the French language school that served as program housing for all Penn students. Fueled by espresso and croissants, our group disseminated throughout Cannes in search of the day’s first film, whether that happened to be a red-carpet Hollywood blockbuster, a campy horror market screening, or an art-house selection in the Un Certain Regard category. Nothing is guaranteed: you could wait in line for three hours, hungry and tired, only to miss the capacity cutoff by three people; you could be eating a crepe in the right place at the right time and find yourself the lucky recipient of a stranger’s ticket to that night’s red carpet screening.

The films, like restless creatures, were not confined to their given theaters, but spilled out onto the streets of Cannes, into the convenience stores and restaurants, and were the subject of all conversation those two weeks. It’s one thing to watch a movie at a theater with a friend or alone on Netflix at two in the morning; it’s another experience entirely to watch a movie and find yourself surrounded by thousands of other people who not only saw it too, but are itching to discuss it. Meals were times to regroup and strategize (“Was this one worth seeing?” “Which one’s your new favorite?”) and the long lines that began forming two or three hours before the film’s start time allowed us to catch up on the day’s Hollywood Reporter or Variety.

There was a strong sense of camaraderie in those lines, despite so many language barriers: something about the near-absurdity of waiting two hours to see a film, then repeating the process over and over, brought strangers together almost as much as the films themselves did. Normally when we speak of “bubbles” in sociological terms, it’s in reference to situations or places that are sheltered, that foster unrealistic or unsustainable conditions. The Cannes Film Festival certainly shares some of those characteristics. It’s an unsustainable lifestyle, certainly, and it’s one of the most privileged events on earth. However, there’s an upside to the bubble: the shared experiences that bring the unlikeliest of company together. For all of my academic interest in international film, it wasn’t until I got to Cannes that I really understood what that meant: hundreds or thousands of people in the same theater with the image as a universal language.

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Though ultimately the movies themselves were the reason all of us found ourselves at Cannes this summer — they constituted the bulk of our days, they are the subjects of our term papers, and they dominated our conversations — the “Cannes experience” is what I’ll remember years from now, after details of cinematographic styles and character development have become blurred. Looking back, it doesn’t quite seem real. From negotiating jam-packed schedules to walking the red carpet on premiere nights to sitting across the aisles from the same actors on the screen in front of you, everything about Penn-in-Cannes was pure exhilaration.

However, there were quiet moments too. If you could steal off for a bit after a film got out, maybe the sun would be setting and there’d be an open bench along the boulevard, looking out at the ocean. There were these transitory periods when you could see a crew setting up for a midnight beach screening of Pulp Fiction or a woman emerging from the side entrance of a hotel, slipping on her high heels before heading out to a premiere party. And soon enough, everything resumes again a whirlwind of sounds and images, and you forget that quiet moments exist at all.


Heather Holmes is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in English with a Film Studies concentration. She works at Williams Cafe as a barista and the ICA as a member of their student board. She is interested in film as a means of self-representation in marginalized communities.


Edited by Kenna O'Rourke. Photos by Caroline Yost.