Cannes: How to Kiss the French Hello Like a Pro

Illustrations by: Zohar Lazar

Eight simple rules for mastering la bise (the cheek peck) while also preventing red-faced faux pas, bruised cheekbones, excess slobber and awkward encounters.

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Two cheeks are better than one (or three, or four)

Within France there are many regional variations on la bise: Four kisses are standard in some parts of the North, and three in the South. But at international events like Cannes, most people stick to the standard Parisian double kiss -- one on each cheek. To avoid unwanted nose-bumps and lip-locks, start on the right side and lead with your right cheek (see Figure A). As your cheeks converge, make a soft kissing sound without actually touching lips to flesh.

Go easy on the man-kisses

In French film circles, it's perfectly common for two straight guys to cheek-kiss each other. But the habit is reserved for friends. Just because the usher at the Palais has led you to a prime VIP seat at the Grace of Monaco premiere doesn't mean you should kiss him.

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Take your cue from the natives

One surefire trick for foreigners, male and female, is to follow the lead of the French person you're greeting. If he or she leans slightly forward and offers a cheek, do the same; if a hand is extended, extend yours. If you're a man swooping in for a cheek-plant and the woman suddenly recoils in disgust, that's a bad sign. You've been outed as a boor or a creep (or both).

When in doubt, shake hands

At daytime meetings, if you're introduced to a member of the opposite sex, "a handshake is best," advises Yohann Comte, deputy head of sales for the French studio Gaumont. "Except if you're being presented by a mutual friend," he clarifies. "Or if the woman is extremely pretty."

The rules change after dark

At dinners and parties, it's more acceptable to kiss a new acquaintance, especially one you've met previously. But a common error for the non-French is to overdo the gesture, betraying way too much eagerness. "I like to kiss only other Europeans, because they know how it's done," says a female French producer who asked not to be named. "With Americans, things can go very wrong."

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Be aware that the locals may be playing you

The French long have been wise to the insecurities of Americans and other New World rubes who are eager to appear like sophisticated Euro air-kissers. So a nonchalant smooch from Gilles the suave sales agent may just be a form of calculated flattery. If you're a female executive and a Frenchman greets you with a pucker and a "Bonjour, cherie," don't assume that he's really into you. "An unexpected kiss can destabilize a foreigner, in the right way," notes Comte wryly. "We have to fulfill our mission as Frenchmen, no?"

Never hug

While the kiss may seem to Americans like a strangely intimate way to greet a total stranger, for the French it can actually serve as a distancing tactic -- a way to avoid the dreaded hug. In much of Europe, an unsolicited, full-body hug feels like the ultimate invasion of personal space. Save it for your fellow American bros if your film snags the Palme d'Or.

Cut yourself some slack (but only a little)

According to Gregory Chambet, a partner at Paris-based WTFilms, the French don't expect foreigners to fully master the nuances of la bise, so you'll likely be forgiven for many of the classic gaffes, such as "a half-assed attempt with barely touching cheeks, or a mix of air-kissing and hugging." Still, Chambet says, "It looks pretty funny to us."