Every May, the world’s eyes turn to the Cannes Film Festival to see what the celebrities will do. Will anyone wear an outrageous outfit like Sacha Baron Cohen’s luminous mankini? Will anyone break the rule about women wearing heels on the red carpet, like Kristen Stewart who whipped off her stilettos and ran up bare foot?
This year, like lots of folk, I looked at all the pictures online. However, as a writer, for many years, I was out there trying to push my screenplays. Easyjet’s flights to Nice were crammed full of us indie filmmakers, seeing if we could catch a break.
The first year I went, I was fresh faced and fuelled up by All The Love You Cannes, Lloyd Kaufman’s 2002 documentary about his anarchic company Troma’s annual pilgrimage to the festival.
My friend and I managed to get accreditation as “film professionals” and went for the full two weeks, even though we didn’t have anywhere to stay. Fortunately, favourite Brit hang-out Le Petit Majestic opened until 6am, with drinkers spilling out onto the streets, their post-film discussions turning into full scale rants as the night progressed.
After that, the only option was the strip bar. That was open 24 hours, but I got kicked out by the (male) boss for trying to incite feminist revolt amongst the strippers!
One night, we tried to sleep on the beach. An official came to move us along, so we walked further down the Croisette and kipped in a covered market stall that sold wooden ties. Living the dream!
Like most events, the festival was less official back then and not so obsessed with security. You could walk onto the beach and sneak into parties around the back. If there was a barrier, it was made of rope and only two-foot high. We were used to jumping over the wall into Glastonbury festival. This was child’s play to us!
My fearless friend even crashed The Da Vinci Code launch by clinging onto the back of a worker’s dingy and cadging a lift out to the island where it was held. When they got close, she let go, swam the last bit, then ran into the party soaking wet, like a Bond girl. She’s given up film and become an eco-activist now.
As my writing career developed, I continued visiting Cannes, although I got old and sensible and only went if I had somewhere to stay. With a roof – what a sell out!
But I still hadn’t got around to walking the red carpet. Maybe I was nursing some naïve idea that I’d go to a premiere when it was for my own film. Or maybe there wasn’t enough space in my hand luggage for a decent dress and I couldn’t afford to check in a case.
Finally, in 2016, I decided to get over myself and go to a premiere. With festival accreditation, it’s easy to apply for tickets. So, I got tarted up and tottered along the red carpet in my heels; the picture was taken that night. I won’t say what the film was, but my friend left early, I fell asleep then afterwards I wandered to McDonalds in very sore, bare feet for a late-night Burger Végétarien. This wasn’t how it looked on TV!
The red carpet seems so intrinsic to the movie premiere now, but the Oscars only started using it in 1961 and Cannes Film Festival in 1987. However, the symbol is ancient, with its origins in Greek Tragedy.
In 458 BC Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, which tells the tale of the eponymous king’s victorious return from the Trojan War. Agamemnon is greeted by his wife Clytemnestra, who is all smiles.
“Now my beloved, step down from your chariot,” she coos. “Let not your foot, my lord, touch the earth. Servant let there be spread before the House … a crimson path.”
She tries to persuade Agamemnon to walk along the red carpet, but he realises it could be dangerous.
“Do not make me walk this envious way and draw the waiting wrath down from Above,” he protests. “These things are honours for the gods, not men.”
He knows that only They deserve this kind of luxury; not little old, mortal him. But his wife insists and finally he relents. At least, he didn’t have to do it in heels!
So, Agamemnon walks into the house. Next time we see him, Clytemnestra has murdered him with an axe. Well, he did sacrifice their daughter and take a concubine. That can annoy a wife.
Now, his lifeless body lies on the blood-stained carpet. The message is clear; whatever Earthly rank or position, a mortal must not walk on the red carpet. It is an act of sacrilege, defying the authority of the gods.
Of course, these days, the message is the opposite. To walk on the red carpet means you are important, special, immortal even, captured forever on the silver screen. A little bit like a God.
Maybe it’s actually a lust for immortality that drives so many of us to want to make films. So many stars have issues with depression, we know it won’t necessarily make us happy. But for some reason, we can’t give up the chase. Are we really trying to cheat death?
That picture taken in 2016 is a relic now. Last year, the festival banned anyone from taking selfies on the red carpet. Perhaps it threatened the glamour and sent out the message that you didn’t have to be special to walk the “crimson path.”
I have one abiding memory from my first trip to Cannes, despite all the free Rosé. Not having anywhere to sleep meant that I was always up so late (or early!) that I saw the red carpet being taken down after the premieres. In the morning, I watched them come back and replace it. Suddenly, a piece of road that moments before was normal, with people stomping all over it, became special once again. Now meaning was attributed to it and it was fit only for the Gods.