My first morning at my first Cannes began with a nightmare. I dreamed that I'd fallen asleep at a fancy party and woken up tattooed. Someone had inked a 2-inch-thick steampunk-looking skeleton from the back of my ankles up to my ass. Panicked, I ran into a café to see if it would scrub off. Two years of high school French and I'm still too dumb to say, "Get this fucking tattoo off my body!" (According to Google translate, it's "Obtenir ce putain de tatouage de mon corps!") And then suddenly, a knight came to my rescue: the rapper Ice-T, who, in dream logic, handed me a magic washcloth and, when I was half-clean, sent his assistant over with a chicken.
In Cannes, fantasy and fact are blurred. It's like living in a dream, the byproduct of 10-hour jet lag and too much wine. During the day, you want to see everything — the movies, the madhouse, the magnificent grandmothers with hot-pink hair — and at 4 a.m., you're desperate to fall asleep. Like Alice in Wonderland mixing potions, everyone calibrates their energy with espresso and rosé. There's even a critic I dubbed the Mad Hatter who struts around in mismatched head-to-toe plaid.
On opening night, press from every corner of the world — Beijing to Brazil — jockeyed to get into a three-hour Romanian drama, Cristi Puiu's Sierranevada. Once inside, half the theater fell asleep. Forgive them: The movie is set in one dark apartment on the afternoon of a wake. A dozen cranky relatives just want to eat and leave. But they're stuck starving: The priest is late, a drunk stranger vomits in the bathroom, a special suit doesn't fit, and an estranged husband pounds on the door. Once I got sucked into the infighting, which took about an hour, I was hooked. The dialogue is all hostility. Every character is a victim and a jerk, and every argument is futile.
At the opening-night beach party, drowsy people waiting in line for wine filled each other in on the bits they missed. Depending on when people fell asleep, they had a different theory of what the movie was about. One critic, jolted awake during squabbles about 9/11 and communism, guessed it was about politics. Another only roused himself at the end when the aunts screamed about blow jobs.
Two more glasses of rosé later, people padded off to bed to rally for the 8:30 a.m. morning screening of Alain Guiraudie's Staying Vertical, a French comedy about a promiscuous hipster transformed into a single dad on a sheep farm. It was a surreal wake-up call. After an early XXX shot of shepherdess labia, Guiraudie upped the stakes to a blood-and-shit-soaked birth sequence, with the camera planted 2 feet from the vagina, and, finally, a love scene in which our hero literally fucks an 80-year-old man to death. Those sound like empty shocks, but Staying Vertical was absurdly touching — even sentimental — about the power of the penis to both bestow life and end it, with Guiraudie asking you to respect how lonely people give their bodies to each other in a quest for connection.
In a PG way — as in Pants Glued On — I'm loving how connected all of us film nerds are here in France. We've all traveled a long way to flood the city of Cannes, whose population has quadrupled from 70,000 to nearly 270,000. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder in entrance lines, looking like giant tins of anchovies, everyone talks about what they've seen (or half-seen between naps). The night before the festival, I managed to squeeze into the long table at La Pizza for the ritual Cannes Eve film critic feast, which Roger Ebert adored. The film-festival circuit is a traveling circus where every few months, far-flung weirdos meet up to argue about directors. It's like coming back to summer camp, only now instead of macramé, the group activity is booze. Three hours and one anchovy-and-eggplant pizza later, I happily toddled off to sleep. Weird dreams were ahead, and I didn't mind one bit.