countdown to Cannes

Newsflash: the smell of summer is suddenly in the air in the South of France. Down in Cannes, fur coats have been tossed aside in favour of sequinned bikinis as winter-white skin is unleashed onto the beach. MIPIM (Cannes’s big annual real estate trade event held at le Palais des Festivals) has come and gone, which means only one thing: the countdown to the Cannes Film Festival has begun.

Photograph of actor and director taking a selfie at a cocktail party on a terrace by the sea in Cannes
Actor Adam Bakri and director Asif Kapadia take a selfie at a cocktail party
In a few short weeks, 4,000 journalists and photographers will head down to the French Riviera to capture the world’s biggest film event. For me, as a freelance photographer, the Cannes Film Festival is never predictable. I don’t do the red carpet, nor do I camp outside hotels in trees, armed with a long lens to take compromising snaps of stars. I don’t usually need press accreditation to the festival. My work is generally away from the crowds. Editorial portraits might be set up in hotel suites or on board a yacht; I might be commissioned by corporate clients to make PR images of a film industry event they have sponsored… But in any case, Cannes is never dull.

a reluctant palm d’or portrait

Tear sheet from newspaper showing portrait of Abdellatif Kechiche standing by the pool
Abdellatif Kechiche: if he knew he was going to win, he didn’t show it
I used to choose to believe that until the moment The Envelope is opened on stage at great award ceremonies, absolutely nobody knows its content (the jury presumably swearing some sacred blood oath of silence). However, when my phone rang the day before the 2013 grand awards night in Cannes and my client at the FT Weekend said “hey Rebecca, get ready: we have a tip-off as to who is going to win the Palme d’Or tomorrow“, I realised that I had been naive.

I don’t know whether Abdellatif Kechiche himself (director of Blue is the Warmest Colour) was aware of his impending win or not, but in any case, he wasn’t in a joyful mood. The newspaper planned for me to piggy-back on the short interview slot that their journalist, Nigel, had obtained with him. This would have been fine, but only Nigel and I seemed to be aware of this arrangement. The hotel’s hushed pool-side terrace was swarming with writers lining up for their interviews with actors and directors, but there were no other photographers in sight and my flashes and umbrella caused some consternation. Discussions with Kechiche’s agent were protracted and, by the time Abdellatif himself showed up and Nigel had used his own share of our 15 minute slot, I had all but 3 minutes in which to take a portrait. Since Mr Kechiche had been promised an afternoon of written interview sessions only, and wasn’t at all in the mood to humour a photographer, I don’t think I was treated to his best side. A portrait subject sulkily refusing to lift his eyes off the floor was a first for me, and in this case forced me to lie prostrate on the decking in an effort to engage with his eye line and coax it upwards….

2014: a mixed bag

Portrait of Chaz Ebert, standing in stairway
Portrait of film critic Chaz Ebert for the Guardian Weekend magazine
Last year, driving down to Cannes to be stood up by a hungover Russian film director before breakfast wasn’t a high point either (why his agent had scheduled a portrait and interview at 8.30 am the morning after his awards night I don’t know). However, my more successful assignments included a portrait of the most gracious and charming film critic Chaz Ebert (for Guardian Weekend magazine), reportage of a film launch party at the Hotel Martinez (where the toughest part of the night was fighting my way in and out through the wall of paparazzi waiting outside) and, last but not least, accompanying a a film director and prominent writer/artist on a luxury powerboat trip from Cap d’Antibes to Monaco.

big waves for a small powerboat

Many aspects of this boat excursion were unclear to me: the date (I have to confess feeling girlish disappointment when high winds meant the day was changed last minute and the third passenger, Jude Law, could no longer join our little party), the pick-up location (I wasted much of a morning driving up and down the coast, scanning the sea for a small powerboat) and the purpose of the trip (film director Steve confessed that he didn’t understand either, seeing as he didn’t especially like boats), but as a humble photographer at Cannes, I just roll with it, and the weird and wonderful PR events that get dreamed up.

Photography of man stepping off a powerboat onto a jetty in Cannes harbour
Harland steps onto the jetty in Cannes, tuxedo in hand

Both Steve and writer Harland were suffering from monstrous hangovers in the morning, clearly not helped by the motion of a small boat, and conversation was minimal. However, once we had been dropped off at the jetty in Cannes and had a stonking lunch at famous film festival joint Caffe Roma, with an amusing diversion to a fancy dress hire shop on the way (writer Harland had to drop off a tux that he’d hired for pal Damian Hurst’s party the night before), the afternoon was much more convivial. As we sped across open seas and higher and higher waves towards Monaco, the mood was all laughter and music.

Photograph of photographer Rebecca Marshall sitting on the back of a power boat
Cold and scared but still able to smile the seasickness away at this point (photo courtesy of Steve Barron)
However, when the boat turned for our return journey, conditions changed. Steve and I were now the only passengers aboard (I hasten to add the two other passengers were smoothly delivered to dry land, not bounced out along the way) and we were launched into a dramatic headwind, with waves now considered ‘dangerous‘ (according to the captain). Bravado and a reluctance to travel the whole French Riviera by taxi saw us brave it back, despite the captain’s advice, but I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant hour. Fear of being bounced out of the boat was all that stopped me being seasick. My capacity to be a useful photographer decidedly compromised, I packed my camera away, zipped up the jacket gallant Steve had lent me and, teeth chattering, simply clung on for dear life.

What on earth to expect this year? Watch this space…

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