a sea of stars at Cannes Film Festival party

Have you warmed up now?” “Yes, thank god! Oooooh it was freezing upstairs!!!“, Mary J Blige giggled back. Her stunning, beaded mini-dress hadn’t proven adequate covering for a windy French Riviera spring evening and Mary had had to make a game effort to wipe the frown off her face when I’d photographed her earlier. Now though, after a spell at the bar, and in the warm company of Will Smith, she appeared to be in a better mood. Will and Ozwald Boateng genially re-arranged themselves to squeeze Mary snugly between them for another picture and I thanked them, before slipping back into the crowd. Away to my right I could see Clint Eastwood, drinking a beer with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the terrace and Al Gore was laughing loudly at a big joke he’d just cracked to my left. I slid as smoothly as possible past Julianne Moore, deep in conversation with Eva Longoria, to catch Dustin Hoffman who I’d just spotted – it looked like he was about to leave.

Page from the New York Times newspaper showing a mix of party photos and text

VPP (Very Privileged Photographers)

‘Exclusive’ is a word that doesn’t do this event justice. It is, quite simply, THE party of the Cannes Film Festival. Hosted by Vanity Fair, at l’Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc (arguably the French Riviera’s most luxurious hotel), this soirée is strictly reserved for the very greatest of them all. Tickets are not like gold dust: they are simply unobtainable. Security is brought in from Switzerland. “Are you that good?” I asked the tuxedo-ed hulk at the door. “I’m good” he replied, with the phlegmatism one might expect of a Swiss bouncer, “but, importantly, I don’t have friends in the South of France“. Apparently when local Nice and Cannes security teams once ran the show, ‘friends’ would offer doormen a couple of hundred euros to be let in and the A-list quality of the event was quickly diluted. Today, even the biggest celebrities arrive in ones and twos. Not even their own security are admitted entry. While champagne flowed and stars partied inside the grounds, around 40 bodyguards could be seen, gathered like roosting crows, under a dark tree outside.

Although plenty of VIPs can be seen taking pictures of themselves and each other, professional photographers generally don’t get near the place. The physical inaccessibility of the venue (on a cliff directly above the sea, where waves crash wildly onto rocks below), and security surveillance from aerial points all around, dissuades hungry paparazzi from a sea-borne approach (although some do try). Working for the New York Times, I was among a very privileged few to be invited: with Vanity Fair photographers and a Getty shooter, we were only 4 photographers in all. Although everything had been pre-arranged in New York, even getting hold of my invitation on the French Riviera was a Herculean task: email is not trusted and the only acceptable method was hand-to-hand delivery a day prior to the party, subject to passport scrutiny.

Photograph of Kendall Jenner having her picture taken at a party
Plenty of guests were snapping pictures of each other

Ladies in waiting

The journalist and I were due to start at 22.00. Arriving half an hour early, to get the lay of the land and for me to set up my workstation in the basement, was clearly a mistake. After being made to wait like schoolgirls at the bottom of the porticoed entrance steps, and reprimanded for our earliness, we were banished to the hotel’s Bellini Bar. With views of the hotel gardens running down to the sea, the terrace wasn’t bad as banishments go, even if we could drink only tap water (“Sorry Madame, we cannot serve drinks to non-residents“).

A little light eavesdropping on neighbouring tables provided entertainment for the wait, which turned out to be considerably longer than 30 minutes (the dinner -to which we were Not Invited- was running late). “One thing I’ve learned to be really important in life is to buy yourself good friends“, was one pearl of wisdom that I overheard, being conveyed to a leathery Austrian next door (who I later photographed sharing cigars and jokes with Arnold Schwarzenegger). “I’m a vegan. But I wear leather. I just don’t want an animal inside me,” floated to us on the evening breeze from the other side. Finally, our summons came and we headed down to the party.

Photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger and two friends lighting cigars
Arnie lights up with chums

Best behaviour

An invitation to cover this event comes with conditions, of course. The writer was permitted no audio recording equipment whatsoever, not even a phone, during any grabbed interviews (“run into the toilets and write down any quotes immediately afterwards if you have to“). As photographer, I was closely followed by Beth, Vanity Fair communications boss. I did as I was told and paid close attention to the rules, both unspoken (not disturbing guests; being discreet) and her spoken rules, which changed by the minute (“you may Not photograph Any guests at their tables“, “right now you may go Quickly, take one shot of Emma Thompson at her table and come straight back“, or “I don’t think Rosamund Pike wants to be photographed but you can go Now just be VERY subtle“).

Behaving well paid off – my presence was freed of a time restriction (in 2016 I’d only been allowed 45 minutes at the party), and, frankly, I needed all the help I could get. I have no TV and don’t read the kind of magazines that would keep me up-to-the-minute informed about stars’ hairstyles, body weight and partners, so spotting trending A listers in a tightly packed crowd on a dark terrace was challenging. I couldn’t even rely on the buzz of interest that often surrounds a celebrity in a crowd, or a group of flashes popping, to indicate my quarry. A tip sheet (a very long list of ‘notables’ present) was presented to me last year an unhelpful 2 minutes before I started shooting. My subsequent question, “Kendall Jenner: what does he look like?“, quickly gave Beth the measure of my handicap. Her support has since been long-suffering.

DiCaprio’s umbridge & tête-à-tête with a lapdog

Photograph of Jake Gyllenhaal and countess Marina Cicogna with her dog at a party
Dog and countess enjoyed Jake Gyllenhaal’s company

Every now and then, I would pass my fellow photographers, also engaged in the dance of spotting a target, pre-setting the camera and flash and ducking in for 2-3 quick shots, before moving on. I was constantly scanning the crowd for new arrivals, interesting groupings of A-listers together or ‘moments’ (from a trio of supermodels throwing extraordinary moves on the dancefloor to Jake Gyllenhaal chatting to a small dog in the arms of an Italian countess). Celebs played the game: some treated me as invisible, allowing me to take close-up reportage photographs of intimate chats; others posed. There was only one exception, last year: the charming Leonardo DiCaprio took umbridge, unexpectedly and very vocally, to my taking his photo as he walked towards the bar. Another unpleasant moment was getting wrestled, almost to the floor, by highly-strung bouncers on a cabin roof in the garden. But it was all in a good cause: the scene-setter that I had climbed up to get, showing the whole party with the lights of Cannes sparkling in the distance, was chosen as the main feature photograph in last year’s New York Times article.

Nobodies and pumpkins

As the dancefloor tempo stepped up and new arrivals were dwindling to nothing, I retreated to the basement to edit and caption my pictures. Any subject shown in a photograph must be named in the description. While I could recognise, for example, Tilda Swinton in a photo by the bar, I didn’t know who the young bearded man alongside was, nor the pin-striped gent who was shaking her hand (the latter turned out to be the co-founder of Microsoft). “Oh him, he’s a nobody” was Beth’s frequent response, before naming a B-list celebrity who would ordinarily generate a ripple of excitement at a more regular party in Cannes. In the cases she didn’t know at all, either the Getty photo editor, some cunning Googling or a photographer colleague would eventually come up with a name.

Photograph of Jessica Chastain, in a white dress, talking at a party
As Jessica Chastain’s friends can’t be seen, this photo caption didn’t require an ID hunt

It was well into the night before I packed my bag and headed to the front door, my car ticket in-hand. As I waited among a group of party leavers, one few-too-many-champagnes-drunk film director and her buddies swayed past me, alternately pleading and berating the doorman as they attempted to get back into the party. In a scene that could’ve been witnessed at the front of any nightclub anywhere (with the exception of the phrase “but I’ve got a film in competition!“), the Swiss doorman treated their noisy clamours with equanimity, all the while blocking the door with his body.

Finally, a white-suited valet arrived, in a long procession of chauffeured black Mercedes, at the wheel of my car. A pre-retirement Nissan Micra, currently sporting a self-seeded plant in her bodywork, she looked a little out of place, but I was happy to jump in and drive swiftly away, before everyone turned into pumpkins.

See my photographs in the New York Times slideshow: Vanity Fair’s Party at Cannes 2017

See my photographs in the New York Times slideshow: Vanity Fair’s Party at Cannes 2016

Read more about some of my other previous experiences as photographer at the Cannes Film Festival

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