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.