Like a faded film star, Cannes loses some of its allure
When Carey Mulligan ditched the Tiffany spangles and Prada sequins of her screen role in The Great Gatsby in favour of a baggy jumper and the dingy folk music venues of the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, it seemed like a comment on this year's Cannes film festival.
Playing the unfussy singer Jean Berkey straight after her bejewelled portrayal of Daisy Buchanan, the actress appeared to have deliberately cast off the baubles and artifice that hang around the annual 12-day cinematic bonanza on the Cote D'Azur.
And this year, the festival's 66th outing on Boulevard de la Croisette, the glittery trappings have strained more than ever to deliver the glamour the waiting world expects.
Conspicuous excess is de rigueur at Cannes, and visiting stars fail to dazzle at their peril. Not only are they draped with itemised haute couture and exorbitant trinkets, their fans are also later informed what deluxe food they were served at the gala dinners that follow a big premiere. (In the case of Mulligan and her Gatsby co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, it was pea and caviar with a white onion foam, followed by sea bream and an apple, cinnamon and green aniseed bouillon.)
So when news broke this weekend that thieves had made off with a large haul of Chopard gems from a Cannes hotel room, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that someone had decided enough was enough. It is, after all, Chopard that makes the crystal-encrusted Palme D'Or prize which is given to the winning film.
The burglary seemed to be an impromptu reprise of the theme of Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, a subversive response to the consumerism on show. Starring Emma Watson, Coppola's film tells of a gang of no-hope wannabes who break into Paris Hilton's Hollywood home to grab her designer shoes and bags.
The festival's obsession with fame will also be nicely undermined by a short French comedy, Merci Beaucoup Bradley Cooper, about an aspiring actress who uses a Cooper lookalike as an escort to fake her way into the VIP realm at Cannes. Rather more serious challenges to Cannes are being mounted by rival international film festivals, such as Venice, Berlin and particularly Toronto. The French festival's conventional weapons are its unabashed displays of high living coupled with potent doses of nostalgia. In an age of global austerity, in which France dipped back gently into recession last week, this nostalgia is being more readily deployed.
On the opening day of the festival, the mayor of Cannes struggled in the drizzle to unveil a vast poster on the side of a building in the old harbour. The white cover sheet, clingy with rainwater, refused to pull away until an official jumped up and down on a rope like a bell ringer. Then the face of Uma Thurman, a Cannes jury member two years ago, was finally revealed in beguiling monochrome.
Every May, the streets of this slightly shabby conference town are festooned with images of screen idols of the past: Marilyn, Sophia, Bridget, Faye and now Uma. Harking back to bygone eras is an essential part of the culture. Critics frequently say that Cannes is not what it was, the films are too violent, the pavements too crowded, the partying that once started at 10am on the beach has disappeared. Some of this is certainly true. Since big sponsors such as Fuji and Kodak, the film stock companies, left town, promotional entertaining on a grand scale has gone and the yachts owned by post-production houses have largely weighed anchor, too.
These days, it is hard for a tourist to get really excited by the sight of a red carpet since they lie in the doorways of most of the town's gift shops, muddy and pocked with cigarette burns. Cannes has devalued its own currency and now only the past looks chic.
The greatest threat of all comes from television. TV has gained both power and critical kudos and is jeopardising cinema's status as the pre-eminent way to tell popular stories. Lars Blomgren, the producer behind the triumphant Scandinavian crime series The Bridge, told an incredulous festival throng on Friday that he prefers television. "I have always worked in both and I think it is film that will have to change. A lot of creativity has moved to TV."
Blomgren said he preferred Mipcom, the "impressive" annual TV festival in Cannes: "It is more focused and there is less b/s."
Yet those who come in search of real glitz and style may not be disappointed. Helicopters still lift above the big yachts in the bay, bringing in the rich and famous. There may be a McDonald's on the quay now, but there are still authentic old men playing boules in front of it.
For the thousands of tourists who arrive to check whether the stars they see on screen really exist, there is a chance of spotting Watson, Mulligan and her co-star Justin Timberlake, or even Nicole Kidman, who sits on Steven Spielberg's jury panel and was paraded yesterday by producer Harvey Weinstein as the star of his film about the late Queen of the Riviera, Grace of Monaco.
Cannes also continues to offer a peerless platform for new projects of all sizes. On Friday, Weinstein swooped to buy up Stephen Frears's new film Philomena. Starring Judi Dench as an Irishwoman looking for the son she was long ago forced to give up for adoption, it is based on a book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith.